Cameron Wyllie: Is difference between private and state schools £3,200 per pupil?

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State education needs radical changes that will cost more money, but it will be worth it in the long run, writes Cameron Wyllie.

Sorry, teachers, but it’s time to change our schools.

Education in Scotland has transformed dramatically over the past decades but further change is needed

Education in Scotland has transformed dramatically over the past decades but further change is needed

I started teaching in 1980 which now seems as foreign a time in education as if I were, at 23, a Dickensian schoolmaster, bearing my cane and my mortar board while boys chanted Latin verses and dreamt of scoring sixes. In these, getting on for 40, years, Scottish teachers have been battered by change and so much of it doesn’t seem to have done any good. The one thing that is very much better is the quality of teachers themselves – if we all think back to the past, so many of our teachers were truly terrible, making the ones that were good shine out like diamonds.

All this change – to policy, philosophy, curriculum, guidance, structure, the exams – good grief, it’s been exhausting, and I speak as someone who taught his entire career in the independent sector and was therefore a bit shielded from it all.

Note I say “independent” rather than “private”. Make the analogy with hospitals – in a private hospital more or less the same thing happens as in an NHS hospital – the private room will have nicer lighting and the food will be better and the treatment more immediate but you are really there for the same reason.

With schools – and this in increasingly true – independent education is actually offering a different product. Yes, the facilities might be better, the class sizes (sometimes) smaller etc but the actual process is also different.

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So, sorry, colleagues, but I think it’s time for radical change in Scottish schools, because things as they stand aren’t very good. They are all right. They are not disastrous. But, as the papers have been full of recently, the stresses and strains on these bright, committed and well-qualified teachers are taking their toll, with record numbers of people leaving the profession.

Everyone hoped that when the Scottish Government rightly made education their priority and John Swinney was appointed as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills things might perk up but so far, not much has happened.

I don’t believe that the Government’s laudable aim of closing the poverty-related attainment gap can happen as things stand without a national conversation on education which actually consults with pupils, parents and teachers, and with my usual modesty, I’m going to make an early intervention in that conversation.

What gives me the right? I have never taught in a state school apart from one glorious teaching practice in 1980 for three weeks at James Gillespie’s which was scarcely a sink school either now or then, having at that point just stopped being a private school itself. I am not what you would call an ‘educationalist’, and I am not an academic; I am really a retired schoolteacher who has passed his entire career in two excellent private schools.

However, I am a taxpayer, and on that basis I should be able to talk about anything my tax is being spent on. Given that Scotland still holds on to the shreds of a proud educational history, this golden time in Scotland’s past which still comes up in conversations with people from other countries who say “of course, Scottish education is so good” when there is increasingly scant evidence of that, there is a public duty as a citizen to be concerned about education.

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Independent education costs money, of course – while many schools have generous bursarial schemes, most people who send their kids to independent education are shelling out vast lumps of their taxed salaries. At the school I last worked at, the average family was paying about £10,000 a year for their son or daughter’s education. However, state education is not, of course, free. The average expenditure on a secondary pupil in Scotland is now £6,800 a year.

So what I would like to do in my next few articles, is examine the ways in which I think state education could be improved, and I am going to try to do that through the lens of the education system I have worked in while at the same time keeping a close eye on budget.

That said, I do not believe that very significant changes can be made to education in Scotland without there being greater expenditure on it, and I think that, if the public were convinced that such changes would benefit the school population of Scotland and its economy, it’s a charge they would be willing to pay.

I think a very strong argument can be made that if there were radical changes made to Scottish education now, the budget would reap the benefits in later years through reduction in expenditure in health, in social security and in criminal justice.

There are three broad areas I would like to suggest are ripe for change. I accept fully that such root changes could not be quietly phased in – it would be necessary for them all to happen simultaneously and probably to begin for a generation of pupils as they embark on formal education.

These three aspects are firstly, the way that our schools are structured, which I believe needs to be changed so that our young people are offered a much more diverse range of educational options; secondly, the curriculum they are offered, which similarly needs to be a great deal more flexible and much less bound to academic qualifications and the route to university, and finally, ‘ethos’ – that rather evanescent and difficult work which headteachers bang on about endlessly and which really means some combination of any school’s ‘mission’ – how it goes about providing an environment in which the students can learn including pastoral care and discipline.

Teachers – if they have time to read these pieces in between marking, preparing, teaching, form-filling, CPD (continuing professional development) and collapsing from stress – will reasonably sigh with disbelief that someone sitting on the retirement throne (did you know that the Spanish word for retirement is “jubilation”) can suggest such wholesale changes.

But something big needs to happen in Scottish schools, something positive, child-centred and actually about education, and it needs to happen soon.

Cameron Wyllie, a retired headteacher, publishes a blog called A House in Joppa. This article is based on a speech to be given today at the Royal Society of Edinburgh