Independent Schools Guide: International agengas reflect global reach

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Scotland’s independent schools sector is extremely diverse, with a wide range of nurseries, schools and teaching environments that offer parents freedom and flexibility when choosing the best fit for their child.

With more than 74 first-rate independent schools across the country educating almost 30,000 young people, according to the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), selecting the right one is no easy task.

Each school truly is unique and aims to enrich every individual’s academic capabilities while developing skills for life. That is why more than 4 per cent of all pupils in Scotland attend an independent school.

A key part of their attraction is the range of choice on offer, particularly in terms of qualifications covering an unrivalled variety of subjects. This includes Mandarin, classical studies, engineering and Latin, all taught through A-levels, Highers and the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme.

And the academic results are impressive. Last year, 93 per cent of pupils in the sector who sat Higher exams passed – and 56 per cent were awarded an A, according to SCIS figures.

St Leonards School in St Andrews is the only Scottish school to concentrate 100 per cent on the IB in the sixth form and beyond the classroom. Dr Michael Carslaw, the school’s headmaster, says: “The curriculum is very much about learning and reflection.

“Pupils are used to challenging themselves and finding out about their strengths and weaknesses so that when they move on to university or the world of work they are ready for it.

“We are not just an exam sausage factory. Our pupils do very well in exams, but we look at education as being much more for life and as something that is much bigger than just aiming for university.”

That approach is echoed throughout the sector, which strives to prepare students for an outward-looking global career. Indeed, this month marks the first anniversary of the opening of Merchiston International School in Shenzhen, China, the first overseas campus of the Edinburgh-based Merchiston Castle School. Gordonstoun School in Moray also has plans to expand, in North America and Asia.

As part of a network of some 1,200 schools across 70 countries worldwide, Edinburgh Steiner School has well-established international links.

Chair of the school’s College of Teachers, Alistair Pugh explains: “There is a Steiner school on every continent and they are growing in China, in particular, and there are hundreds of schools in Europe, so we get a lot of visitors coming from Germany, Austria, Scandinavia and Spain to visit for a term or a year from the age of 14.

“When they visit us, they are keen to learn more about Scotland, improve their English and learn about a different culture, and that really helps inspire our home students who see this spark of interest within their peers.”

Likewise, the all-girls’ Kilgraston School in Perthshire, has international connections as one of 150 Sacred Heart private Catholic schools across 41 countries.

Headmistress Dorothy MacGinty says: “Our third-year girls do an exchange with those from a school in India [Unison World School, Dehradun] for two weeks each year.

“The girls experience the different cultures, education, business and health, and it really is amazing for them because they are also living with the other girls.

“The school our girls visit is in the foothills of the Himalayas and the days begin with yoga. As it is a Hindu school, the girls benefit from an entirely different learning experience.”

Meanwhile, Alex Hems, head of St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, says it has been awarded an Erasmus+ grant to lead a three-school project – called Culture and Community – with schools in Italy and Austria.

“That ties in well with our strong international agenda,” Hems notes. “In a time when Europe seems more and more fractured, it is great to have cross-cultural collaboration.”

And as of September last year, international students from 70 different countries made up 35 per cent of the total of pupils who were boarding at Scottish schools.

But whether the student’s parents live on the other side of the world or a ten-minute drive away, there are options to suit all circumstances.

Parents can choose between full boarding, flexi-boarding or day education, and those pupils who attend on a daily basis certainly don’t miss out on any of the fun.

“We have many of the boarding school benefits within a day school, especially in terms of the extra-curricular,” says Melvyn Roffe, principal at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh.

“We have a huge number available and we expect our senior pupils in particular to be busy all the way through the week and into the weekend. If it is not a sport, drama, debating, music or raising money for our Malawi partnership, it is some other activity they have chosen themselves.”

To accommodate this diverse programme, the activities usually take place on school premises, with staff ensuring that pupils manage to get from one to the other, and transport made available for those based further afield.

This wraparound care is tremendously important to schools that provide day education as it is an essential provision for busy working families.

Care is often provided from as early as 7.45am until 8.30pm, with breakfast and dinner included, and pupils can make use of the impressive facilities on campus outside of teaching hours.

From expansive playing fields to dedicated music rooms and full-length swimming pools, the schools’ facilities are second to none. This year, Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools in Edinburgh invested heavily in its early years provision, adding a new dining hall on site so that younger children can have a family dining experience in a bespoke environment.

The Compass School in Haddington has developed a purpose-built space for music practice and tuition, as 70 per cent of its pupils play a musical instrument. And Albyn School in Aberdeen has had a successful amalgamation with the Total French School, creating a hybrid curriculum which includes Mission Laïque Française principles.

Of course, with annual fees costing anywhere up to £10,000 a term for day pupils, an independent education does not come cheap, though it is very much seen as a worthwhile investment which provides value for money.

Help is available for parents who would find fees unaffordable, and they are not required to enrol their child to any school for the full duration of their education.

In fact, many pupils attend their preferred school for the last one or two years to obtain those all-important final qualifications.

The all-through-school option, however, secures a seamless transition between each stage of an individual’s learning.

And the choice doesn’t stop there. Some parents select a single-sex education for their child, sending their son to one of two all-boy schools in Scotland, or their daughters to one of five all-girl schools, where all areas of learning are free from gender stereotyping.

Jonathan Anderson, headmaster at Merchiston Castle School, says: “There is a freedom of expression for our boys to be open, as the lessons they are being taught are done in a way that best suits a boy’s learning style, and that is reassuring to them.

“I was talking to a boy who came to us for sixth form from a co-educational background, and he has noticed a big difference in the levels of attention he receives.”

Scotland’s independent schools vary in size, some specialise in specific sports and activities, some are found in urban districts, others in countryside locations.

But whatever choice a parent may make, they can rest assured that 
all of Scotland’s independent schools will seek to ensure their child settles in easily while developing curiosity and a passion for learning alongside skills and friendships for life.