Inequality: The elephant in the room


Inequality remains the elephant in the room of Scottish education, warns Alex Wood. Rather than playing their part in tackling the issue, he accuses the bulk of Scotland's private schools of reinforcing these inequalities.

I recently participated in a professional development event in one of Edinburgh’s well-known private schools. The private school head spoke first. He was kind and courteous, proud of his school’s “inclusive” tradition of offering “foundation” places to the children of “fatherless bairns” (suitably amended for the modern age to any children one of whose parents was dead) as well as other bursaries.

He valued the school’s capacity to retain an “independent” approach to national curricular guidelines, “unlike schools in the state sector”. The HMIs had been happy with its variations on the national curriculum. He valued the continuation of three separate science departments and the teaching of five languages (some language classes were opened to students from local “state” schools) all of which underpinned its commitment to a “liberal education”.

The first aspect of the discussion which jarred with me was the language. Fee-paying, private schools refer to themselves as “independent” and to comprehensive schools as “state sector”. Leaving aside the inaccuracy (there is only one state secondary in Scotland, Jordanhill; the rest are local authority schools) the use of the term “state”, with its echoes of state control, is deliberately pejorative.

“Independent” on the other hand is positively redolent of virtue. I bristle at the presumption of superiority inherent in the language. Why not simply speak of “private” and “public” schools?

There is a parallel in a recent rugby trial where students from Edinburgh’s private schools played students from the comprehensive sector. The private school team was named “Edinburgh Schools”; the comprehensive team, “Edinburgh Tigers”. My objections however transcend that pedantic linguistic quibble.

The case that the “foundation” awards made the school “inclusive” is highly problematic. The Charity Regulator pointed out, in 2008, that 210 out of 1,600 pupils were in receipt of means-tested assistance, other scholarships and awards. The remaining 1,400 paid fees, for the secondary department, of some £8,300 per annum. The average wage is just over £26,000. Such fees, I suggest, are by definition exclusive.

Inequality is the elephant in the room of Scottish education. Scotland’s oldest universities take only a tiny handful of students – St Andrews (2.7 per cent), Aberdeen (3.1 per cent) and Edinburgh five per cent) – from Scotland’s poorest communities.

Inequalities however start far earlier. At age 5, children with a degree-educated parent have a vocabulary around 18 months ahead of those with unqualified parents. At age 3, the vocabulary of children from the poorest quintile by household income, is 0.5 of a standard deviation below average, while that of those from the top quintile is 0.27 standard deviations above average. The children of the affluent start education with an enormous in-built advantage.

That particular school’s foundation system makes it very marginally more inclusive than the bulk of Scotland’s private schools but the purposes of the private school system, I suggest, include:

  • Providing an exclusive educational experience in which the children of the affluent need never mix with the children of the poor except for a very small number, there by bursary and therefore bought into the system.

  • Providing an educational experience which reinforces a hierarchical culture, socially conditioned assumptions of leadership and of intelligence.

  • Creating a web of social, sporting and professional networks which the former student may access and use and from which they can materially profit over a lifetime.

Perhaps it would be more accurate and succinct to suggest that the very purpose of such schools is the reinforcement and recreation of the already-mentioned inequalities. Perhaps also it is hypocrisy of politicians to indulge in rhetoric challenging educational inequality but to refuse to even discuss such a key factor in its continuation.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.


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