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Auld Reekie's private past

Ties that Bind: Boys' Schools of Edinburgh

(Hardcover 2009, pound;19.50)

5 out of 5

Creme de la Creme: Girls' Schools of Edinburgh

(paperback 2010, pound;12.50)

5 out of 5

Both titles by Alasdair Roberts

It is a simple fact that no one can fairly claim to understand Edinburgh if they know nothing about its fee- paying schools. It is impossible to imagine the city without the traditions, contributions and the very architecture of these institutions. And it is no accident that for many the "definitive" Edinburgh novel remains Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), centred on the semi-fictional Marcia Blaine School for Girls.

The city still sends just under a quarter of its secondary pupils to fee- paying schools, which is why these fascinating volumes featured last week in an illustrated talk at the National Library of Scotland.

Alasdair Roberts has no axe to grind. He neither makes a case for or against these schools; these are descriptive histories, full of colour and incident, which raise "issues" by example or implication only.

The ironies abound. For instance, while girls were not spared the strap in co- educational state schools, corporal punishment was never used in fee- paying girls' schools where ethos led over authority; and that ethos, even in the 19th century, was often "feminist": to achieve a higher-class education equal to that of boys.

Snobbery and social prejudice played a part in the burgeoning of fee- paying schools; and institutions which sometimes began as boarding "hospitals" (in the non-medical sense) for the poor or orphaned soon became, by design andor force of circumstance, larger day schools catering mainly for those who could pay.

But most fee-paying schools in Edinburgh were not of the ultra-exclusive sort, at least in the 20th century. The majority were, Roberts points out, grant-aided, with central government money putting them in reach of middle-class families along with local authority fee-paying schools, subsidised out of rates and taxes. "The fees were low and pupils were selected from aspiring families where the householder (in very many cases) worked with his hands."

In that sense, the history of Edinburgh's fee-paying schools is more about social gradation than class division; and it would be foolish (and unhistorical) to imagine that if these low- to mid-range fee-paying schools were still in existence, the parental uptake would be other than high.

These books form an intriguing social history of Edinburgh, and their attraction for many will probably lie in the colourful details which cover not only educational principles and ethos, pedagogy and discipline, uniforms, sports, pastimes and inter-school rivalries, but also riots, murder and even accidental death in pioneering science labs, along with a portrait of the original St Trinnean's.

But their virtue lies elsewhere: in putting Edinburgh's unique tradition of fee-paying education in a social and historical context, thus inviting an informed and open debate.

Under the comprehensive ethos, fee-paying schools are the elephant in the room which everyone can see but few educationalists will address. That may be a matter of ignorance, political disdain or inverted snobbery, but it is just plain daft. Recession or no recession, these schools are not going to wither away, and most certainly not in the city of Miss Jean Brodie.


Alasdair Roberts was a history teacher in Glasgow and Montreal and a lecturer in education theory at Aberdeen College of Education. His latest book, Convent Girls of Edinburgh, is due to be published by the Aquhorties Press later this year.

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