Education in Scotland: Why state schools would be better if they were more like private ones – Cameron Wyllie

Should everyone go to a private school? OK. Just before you all start screaming, let me rephrase.

Class sizes in state schools is one issue that needs to be looked at (Picture: Ben Birchall/PA)
Class sizes in state schools is one issue that needs to be looked at (Picture: Ben Birchall/PA)

I don’t mean “let’s shut state schools and make everyone pay direct fees for their children’s education to private corporations” ; I mean “should everyone go to a school that’s like a private school”.

These schools would, of course, be funded by the state out of taxpayers’ money and they would incorporate features which may already exist in some state schools but which are highly identifiable with the vast majority of private schools, and these are aspects of the educational process of which I – and I believe a majority of parents of whatever background – very much approve.

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The distinguished Labour politician Anthony Crosland was Secretary of State for Education and Science in the mid-1960s, and he wrestled with the problem of private schools like many politicians before and after him, the most recent of note, incidentally, being Michael Gove, who, although educated himself at a (very fine) Scottish independent school, has made several very critical interventions to the debate, including questioning the sector’s charitable status.

Back then, perhaps amid claims private schools were “bloody marvellous”, one of Crosland’s civil servants spoke to him in exasperation one day saying "I can’t make up my mind if these schools are so bloody they ought to be abolished, or so marvellous they ought to be made available to everyone”. Hence my question.

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I was lucky enough to work at two private schools (well, they prefer ‘independent’ and I understand why) in Edinburgh and I always thought, for every day of my 37-year career, that there were really good things about them which should (and could) be applied to all schools.

I also think that, during these 37 years, private and state schools moved further and further apart in terms of what they offered and in terms of ethos. I don’t know why that happened but it’s significant, I think, that even in these straitened times, and even in Edinburgh, which is saturated with private schools, the sector, by and large, is hoaching with applicants.

But you can see why Crosland’s advisor was perplexed. On so many levels, private education is unfair, and yet even their biggest critics have to admit that most private schools provide a very good education.

Well, of course they do, says the battered teaching profession; of course they do, say the union officials, reaching for a doughnut; it’s all about money and facilities. The more you spend the better the outcomes.

Well, clearly that’s true, and of course we need to spend more money per head on Scotland’s school pupils, but before we do that we need to think what the extra money is going to be spent on, and at least some of the answer lies in looking closely at private schools. Here are a few suggestions to start with, some of which wouldn’t cost much anyway.

Firstly, lots of people choose private schools because they think that the social environment will be conducive to learning, and broadly that’s true. I think some colleagues in the state sector try very hard to achieve that (and some succeed) but often they don’t feel supported.

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Low-level indiscipline is an issue even for experienced teachers so schools need rules and they need the rules to have sanctions attached, and they need them applied uniformly and for such application to be supported by senior teachers.

These head and deputy head teachers need to feel enabled to run their schools as places of work where young people learn. So – no phones in class (unless they are being used in the lesson, but preferably never); no gum; a clear effort at maintaining dress and appearance standards; talking during lessons only when it’s relevant; no bad language; no bullying etc.

Yeah, yeah – old reactionary, I know. But there are plenty of kids not learning very much because of poor behaviour, and some not even attending school because they are afraid, and that shouldn’t happen in any school.

Secondly – and I make no apologies for beating this drum again – teachers in the state sector should be paid to run co-curricular activities, and, in time, every teacher should be expected to contribute.

Young people love sport and drama and music and cookery and pilates and debating and these things are absolutely a baseline expectation in the private sector. Such after-school and lunchtime activities have enormous impact on self-confidence and skills development and they make students feel part of a larger whole – the team, the band, the club… the School – with a capital ‘S’!

Thirdly, the policy of mainstreaming needs to be looked at again, to ensure that every child – but particularly children with special educational needs – receives an appropriate education.

All schools need the kind of specialised units which many private schools have in which differently abled young people spend some of their time. Teachers, facing a class of say 26 kids – and that in itself needs to be looked at – simply have too many balls to juggle and then face the stress of the guilt they feel when they drop some.

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There are lots more things that could be done – simply pay teachers more; make sure they have time to do useful development work; give heads more muscle in terms of suspension and expulsion – and make sure there are proper alternatives for the young people so sanctioned; and have a lot more time and money spent on guidance, careers advice and pastoral care.

But even the cheapest of these suggestions would make a difference and, you never know, if some government with a bit of radical energy did several or all of them, maybe we wouldn’t have, or need, private schools in the future.

Cameron Wyllie writes a blog called A House in Joppa

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