Is it time to revisit an old controversy?

9th October 2009 at 01:00

When I started teaching in the late 1960s, the attitude of many teachers in the state sector to independent schools was decidedly hostile. This was partly a reflection of the ideological climate of the time, as well as a feeling that private schools were somehow alien to the democratic and egalitarian tradition of Scottish education. Calls for their abolition were not uncommon. The response of the independent sector was to retreat to its own small community, to keep a low profile and hope that political interest would turn elsewhere.

What is the situation today? I ask this partly because I have recently had the opportunity to speak to staff representing a number of independent schools and the comments and questions I received have made me re-think my own position on the subject. The ideological climate has changed and none of the major political parties would now risk proposing abolition.

It is true there are debates about the criteria that have to be met to ensure the continuation of charitable status, but the basic position is a pragmatic one: if Scottish independent schools were to be closed, the business would simply go elsewhere, jobs would be lost and historic buildings sold to developers.

That leaves the question of what kind of relationship should exist between the state and private sectors. Should they remain largely separate, or should they seek ways in which they can work together constructively? The principle of publicprivate partnerships has been conceded in relation to the upgrading of school buildings. Is there scope for other forms of cooperation which might provide benefits to both partners?

I read with interest the article by Alex Wood (TESS, June 5) in which he reported on the very positive links his school (Tynecastle High) had developed with an Edinburgh independent school, St George's, while Judith McClure was head there. Alex, for many years a stalwart of Old Labour, described himself as a "robustly pro-comprehensive head", but he was very warm in his appreciation of the support he had received from Judith in introducing an early education and childcare course. He finished his article with this statement: "Serious professional leadership requires active engagement with whatever is good and admirable, wherever it may be found".

In my own exchanges with staff in independent schools, I was struck by a number of things. First, I was rather surprised to find that several (including a couple of heads) had worked in both sectors, perhaps challenging the assumption that the private sector is a small enclosed world. Second, I learned that where cooperation already existed, it seemed to depend on the personal initiative of individuals, rather than through a more formal approach. Indeed, one independent head said that her overtures to a local authority had been received coolly. And third, I gained a greater appreciation of just how diverse the independent sector is: it is a serious mistake to think of it as a uniform entity.

Taken as a group, independent schools employ more teachers than 29 out of the 32 local authorities in Scotland. Perhaps the time is ripe for a more open dialogue between the two sectors about how they might learn from each other, bringing mutual benefits to their pupils and to the wider community. Anything that might help to reduce social divisiveness is surely to be welcomed.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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