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Pupils we can't afford to lose

Gari Donn asks why more families are choosing an independent school

Anyone who lives in certain parts of Scotland, with children aged 11, will know the meaning of the question: "Well, have you decided yet?" Frequently, this is followed with: "I hear JaneAngusCallum is going to send AmandaFergusLorna to . . . ." There will be a pause, a slight hesitancy, and then: "Yes, we have thought about it too". We are, of course, in the months of the discussion about the independent school. Nowhere else - barring perhaps certain parts of the London area - does this discussion take such force and hold such interest to otherwise well adjusted parents.

I came across the phenomenon when I moved into a Scottish city suburb with two toddlers. While waiting for the Pickfords van to arrive, I took the 18-month-old, in buggy, to the local shops. Browsing at overspill "antiques" on a pavement I was approached by the shopkeeper, engaged in conversation and within three minutes - I kid you not - was asked to which school I intended to send this little tot.

Eight years on and my eldest 11 years old, I find myself revisiting those first cameo comments. Why do parents who have so carefully supported their local primary school find it impossible to maintain that support when faced with entry to secondary school? What goes through their minds, as parents swiftly swap schools, educational communities and often educational philosophies?

In Edinburgh, this situation is particularly acute. More than 23 per cent of the city's children will move into the independent sector post-11. For many this will mean leaving friends of seven years, neighbourhoods they have known and areas of familiarity. The children will have undertaken a number of tests and probably have been party to a whole range of discussions within the family. The latter, with all their emotional and psychological baggage, we can only guess at.

What, I wondered, do parents hope to gain from this transfer? Elizabeth Maginnis, convener of Edinburgh's education committee, is quite definite: "Their gains are imagined - there are many state secondaries doing as good a job, and better, than the independent sector. If you look at the league tables you will see our secondaries coming at the top. We have as good an academic record as these private schools."

For many parents, Mrs Maginnis suggests, there is the historical legacy of where parents themselves were educated, plus a "snob factor": "I hear it time and again. When about to go into employment (not necessarily in Edinburgh) interviewers ask, 'which school did you go to?' or, more frequently, 'I see you went to'."

Mrs Maginnis is alarmed at this tendency to support the independent sector. "The schools of the new council have to attract a cross-section of children. We can't have the most affluent 20 per cent, even 25 per cent, going elsewhere. We have to reach and be agreeable to as many as possible, while recognising that 6 per cent of parents in England and Wales, and elsewhere in Scotland, send their children to private schools. That is a huge difference from the situation in Edinburgh."

Through a number of meetings with a sample of such parents, I raised these and related questions. The results indicate a thoughtful, perhaps over-thoughtful, absorption in a wide range of educational issues. Obviously finance must play a part, yet these are not super-affluent parents. Indeed, most dreaded the expense.

There are three basic reasons. First, parents are worried that their child will not be stretched in the state secondary. Most parents have talked with "graduates" and current pupils in the sector and have found that "years one and two are settling in years"; "there doesn't seem to be any great expectation about the child's potential"; "they tread water"; "mixed-ability groups don't help the brighter child"; "there is little homework"; "children can get away with doing very little"; "there is an ethos of non-motivation"; "children aren't given responsibility for their own work - they aren't challenged".

Second, schools were seen as rather depressing with dirty corridors and overfull bins and there was no attempt to brighten the interior of Victorian red brick buildings. At one open evening for prospective parents, the work on show at a "high status secondary" was either of a poor quality or incredibly old, in one case four years out of date. "How can a school hope to achieve excellence when it expects so little of its parents, never mind its children?" one parent asked.

This is a quite distinct issue, not necessarily related to resources, which most parents understood put tremendous pressure on schools. As the impact of devolved school management bites, headteachers have to "make cuts here to ensure there are resources there". They have to balance books and drive school teams while giving redundancy notices to part-time and temporary staff. It is a job parents recognise as having few personal or professional benefits.

The depressing schools issue is one parents want headteachers to address: make the school an attractive, aesthetic environment for the five or six years the child will be there. Every school can be made attractive somehow, they argue. Use the parental body to paint, donate and innovate, especially if cuts prevent major spending from school funds.

Third, although the issue of class sizes was raised by some, it was acknowledged that most secondary classes are around 25, no matter in which sector. However, there are a few smaller, single-sex schools within the independent sector with smaller classes. In a few cases this made the school attractive, especially smaller girls' schools.

The issue of single-sex schooling for girls, supported by some educational and sociological research, has many adherents. Girls, it is argued, achieve better educationally, gain greater confidence personally and go on to more advanced study and employment when they are educated away from boys. The same cannot be said for boys: research continues to show that they achieve better when there are girls around.

So, unless the secondary headteachers in the schools of the new councils, particularly Edinburgh, recognise that they have to speak to all parents, the 23 per cent of parents sending their children to the independent sector may rise, perhaps to 30 per cent. Yes, address the specific needs of the 30 per cent of "underachieving" children; yes, speak to the 47 per cent of parents of "average" performance children. But also recognise the quite specific needs of the 23 per cent.

To forget them is to condemn state education to the "also ran" category. Yet to look around these schools and to see the excellent art, sculpture and literature, to listen to the music, to talk with happy and articulate children is to realise that there are huge possibilities. Parents make choices, but headteachers provide the platform for those choices.

In the new political climate of the smaller city councils, it is imperative that headteachers recognise the breadth of their community. That is their challenge.

Dr Gari Donn is a lecturer in education at Edinburgh University. This article is part of a research project on the impact of local government reform on education.

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