State schools

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

Class size in public schools is an issue that needs to be looked at (Picture: Ben Birchall/PA)

I don’t mean “let’s close the public schools and make everyone pay direct costs for the education of their children to private corporations”; I mean “should everyone go to a school that looks like a private school”.

These schools would, of course, be funded by the state with taxpayers’ money and they would incorporate features that may already exist in some public schools but are very identifiable with the vast majority of private schools, and these are aspects of the education system process that I wholeheartedly agree with – and I believe a majority of parents from all walks of life.

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Prominent Labor politician Anthony Crosland was Secretary of State for Education and Science in the mid-1960s, and he tackled the problem of private schools like many politicians before and after him, the most recent being moreover Michael Gove, who, although he himself studied in a (very fine) Scottish independent school, made several very critical interventions in the debate, in particular by questioning the charitable status of the sector.

At the time, perhaps amid claims that private schools were “damn wonderful,” one of Crosland’s officials once spoke to him in exasperation, saying, “I can’t make up my mind whether these schools are so bloody that they should be abolished, or so wonderful that they should be made available to all.” Hence my question.

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I have been lucky enough to work at two private (well, they prefer ‘independent’ and I understand why) schools in Edinburgh and have always thought, every day of my 37 year career, that there are very good things about them that should (and could) apply to all schools.

I also think that during these 37 years, private schools and public schools have become more and more distant in terms of offer and ethos. I don’t know why this happened, but I think it’s significant that even in these difficult times, and even in Edinburgh, which is saturated with private schools, the sector, as a whole, is full of applicants .

But you can see why Crosland’s adviser was perplexed. On 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 union officials, reaching for a donut; it’s all about money and facilities. The more you spend, the better the results.

Well that’s clearly true, and of course we need to spend more money per capita on Scottish schoolchildren, but before we do that we need to think about what the extra money is going to be spent on, and at least one Part of the answer lies in taking a close look at private schools. Here are some suggestions for getting started, some of which wouldn’t cost much anyway.

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

Low-level indiscipline is a problem even for experienced teachers, so schools need rules and they need rules to come with penalties, and they need them to be enforced consistently and that enforcement to be supported by experienced teachers.

These principals and vice-principals must feel empowered to manage their schools as workplaces where young people learn. So – no phones in class (unless used during the lesson, but preferably never); no gum; a clear effort to maintain dress and appearance standards; speaking during class only when relevant; no bad language; no harassment etc.

Yeah, yeah – old reactionary, I know. But there are a lot of kids who don’t learn much because of bad behavior, and some don’t even go to school because they’re scared, and that shouldn’t happen in any school.

Second – and I make no apologies for beating this drum again – teachers in the public sector should be paid to organize extra-curricular activities and, over time, every teacher should be required to contribute.

Young people love sports, drama, music, cooking, pilates and debating, and these things are absolutely a basic expectation in the private sector. Such after-school and lunchtime activities have a huge impact on self-confidence and skill development and make students feel part of a bigger whole – the team, the group , the club… the school – with a capital “S”!

Third, mainstreaming policy needs to be reviewed, to ensure that every child – but especially children with special educational needs – receives an appropriate education.

All schools need the kind of specialist units that many private schools have, where young people with disabilities spend part of their time. Teachers, faced with a class of say 26 children – and that in itself needs to be examined – simply have too many balls to juggle and then deal with the stress of guilt they feel when they drop any.

There are many more things that could be done – just paying teachers more; make sure they have time to do useful development work; giving more muscle to the head in terms of suspensions and expulsions – and ensuring that there are suitable alternatives for youngsters so sanctioned; and spend much more time and money on guidance, career counseling and pastoral care.

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

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