Independents and the quiet revolution

The past 10 years have seen a vital sector go through a period of rapid change, says Bart McGettrick

Scottish education is schizophrenic about its independent schools. They have been variously described as places of excellence, of high standards, of enterprise and of accomplishment. On the other hand, they have been seen as places of privilege, of power, and of social division. Recent legislation on charitable status has given impetus to further discussion about their role in Scottish society.

The past 10 years have been a period of rapid change for independent schools. This has been a quiet revolution. It has involved change in quality and in the nature of education in independent schools in Scotland.

The education system in Scotland is not a monolithic, state-provided system. It is a rich mix of specialist provision that caters for the varied needs and wishes of society. It is at its best when it provides choice and opportunity to flourish. This requires a variety of provision to meet the needs of each child. There is an increased awareness of the needs of children who are vulnerable and feel at the margins of our society.

New schools are emerging to provide greater variety in the system, and it will be important to ensure that all such provision is offered in the common good. Experience has taught me that a purpose of education is the flourishing of humanity, within which achievement and personal well-being are integral. It is not the bureaucracy and minutiae of policies and paperwork that are ultimately of value. It is the flourishing of the human condition. The pressures and tensions of society in this country and around the world only serve to emphasise this. People need to be able to make choices and feel committed to what they choose, otherwise they can feel victims of what is on offer.

Choice should not be the preserve only of those who can afford it. Perhaps the main characteristic of an independent school is that it can exercise choice. It can decide how it is going to organise itself, how it is going to provide an education for the students; how it is going to involve its parents, develop its staff, and so on.

Crucially, it can decide how it educates and influences its students.

Increasingly, the independent schools of Scotland are making choices to provide opportunities for students to meet the changing needs of society.

There has been a quiet revolution going on. They have accepted the need for teachers of the highest quality, and have embraced with enthusiasm the opportunities to develop their staff. They have worked with the General Teaching Council for Scotland to ensure that all staff are teachers of quality.

Through the encouragement and support of the Scottish Council for Independent Schools (SCIS), they have been engaged in Government initiatives on the curriculum and assessment. They have been leading in areas of leadership and school effectiveness. In short, they have successfully developed their professionalism and their quality, and that lies at the heart of the revolution. They have not waited for change, but they have chosen to change, and they have done so with the good of their students in mind. They have shown a willingness to share their growing expertise, and to learn from others.

Far from being marginalised and timorous about their place in Scottish education, they have been at the heart of its development. There is a concern in the independent system at large to serve society by promoting certain values - such as excellence and achievement, enterprise and imagination, autonomy and leadership, service to the wider society and personal self-worth.

This is not to claim any kind of unique or exclusive set of qualities or to suggest other schools do not have such attributes. Clearly, the best schools are also places of ambition and enterprise - and not of compliance and conformity. All schools flourish where they are held in high regard and where they have a good association with their communities.

Characteristically, independent schools offer an education that is orientated to "the whole person". It is not narrowly focused on academic achievement alone, and usually offers a wide range of extra-curricular opportunities and experiences. This extends a concept of education beyond any narrow view of the curriculum, and offers a perspective of education for civic living.

Schools do great work in supporting communities, often the underprivileged.

They organise charitable events for handicapped children, they raise money for disaster relief and they do charitable work of all kinds. They are not unique in doing so, but they are certainly generous in doing all they do.

To be educated is to be fit for life, and this implies some attention to performance. Yet education is not solely about attainment and achievement.

That is much more concerned with ideas of excellence and standards. Of course, this cannot be ignored as part of the purposes of education, but independent school education is also concerned with service to the wider community and the development of the self. Schools should therefore be concerned with standards as an indication of the progress of students. It would be perverse to think that this did not matter.

The independent schools have long been places of high quality and worth.

Their history is significant in their ethos and success. The schools are held in high esteem, and are perceived as places of influence. It is naive to think that they are not highly sought after. This has both positive and negative consequences. They need to be places not of privilege, but of opportunity; and not of superiority, but of quality.

They hold a strong place in Scottish society, but nobody can be complacent.

The future will see greater partnerships between the independent schools and state-funded schools. There will be more opportunities for choice, and that is part of the "public benefit" of both state schools and of independent schools. The quiet revolution goes on.

Professor Bart McGettrick was chairman of the Scottish Council for Independent Schools.

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