Bursaries bail out selective schools

6th March 2009 at 00:00

I was recently approached by an inspiring individual with an admirable record in Scottish education of supporting schools, especially in areas of poverty and social and educational failure. His aim was to develop, among their young people, assertive, ambitious leaders with strong ethical commitments.

He had, in turn, been approached by the headmaster of a prominent English private school. Scottish former pupils of that school have established a bursary to support children from the poorest public sector schools in Scotland to attend their highly selective alma mater.

They required a headteacher from the public sector to assist in the organisation of that bursary. He asked if I would consider fulfilling that role. I declined, because I suggested that to do so would strip schools such as mine of that very cohort of leaders and role models which he and I had sought to build.

That experience made me think twice about the Geoff Lucas argument (TESS, February 13) for "the low-cost option of making use of the world-class selective schools in the independent sector ... many (of which) would offer places at the state rate of capitation".

Ostensibly, Lucas argued the case for selection by asserting, without evidence, the "prophetic" truth of RO Pedley's Black Paper that "the notion that talented children are as well catered for in all-ability schools as in schools especially created and operated for them is so much moonshine". In fact, Lucas's argument had nothing to do with the principle of selection or he would have adopted the very position which he so explicitly rejected - the reintroduction of the grammar schools and of a general return to educational selection, as the only means of ending the concept of "all-ability schools" against which he rails.

The shabby purpose of state payment for bright children to attend selective schools in the private sector is to keep such schools afloat in this time of economic downturn.

We challenge the advocates of selection to a public debate. What message about their own superiority does selection give to the selected and what message does it give to those not selected? What perception of the world is conveyed to children when, whether at age five, 12 or 14, they are informed that they should no longer mix with their neighbours but only with an academic (and social) elite? And why, if the private sector is so excellent, does it only accept responsibility for the education of the most academically able and leave the majority, which it deems unsuitable, to the state?

That those who have always dominated British society are willing to integrate into their schools, which effectively recreate their own values, generation after generation, a small proportion of the most able children of the poor, is no sign of generosity or openness. It is simply symptomatic of the financial crisis facing these schools.

When institutions, whether banks or private schools, are brought low by the economics of a market system to which they unhesitatingly subscribe, the state need not ride to their rescue.

Alex Wood is seconded headteacher of Tynecastle High, Edinburgh.

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