Those working in the world of independent education are used to having responsibility for a diverse range of of society’s ills laid at their door. Any alternative to the established status quo will rightly attract comment and occasionally criticism, especially in such a pivotal, prominent and sensitive area as the education of a nation’s young people. The current climate is something entirely different, however.
The independent sector today looks and acts like it does as much because it is Scottish as because it is part of any archetype of “private” or independent education. Scottish schools are unique in having their historic charitable status tested against a formal public benefit test – with widening access at its core. Scottish schools make a disproportionate contribution to the design, assessment and grading of Scottish national qualifications. Scottish schools contribute assessors to the national inspectorate, something they share with the state sector. None of that is replicated down south – the independent sectors in the UK are the products of devolved history, not a unified, standalone reserve.
Nevertheless, the collective narrative perseveres that independent education serves up a homogenous cadre of young people desperate to live out their lives in splendid isolation, cosseted from life’s realities yet assuming to accede to a leading role in every walk of life. This is despite the sector in Scotland alone hosting roughly 30,000 young people, each one as diverse and unique as those living next door. No school or teacher worth their salt – anywhere – strives to encourage group-think, arrogance or isolation.
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Adding the blame for Brexit to the independent sector’s charge sheet is comfortably the daftest and most desperate stereotype yet – the state of the UK today portrayed as the endgame of the decisions of two recent UK prime ministers’ parents decades ago. It happens in countless media profiles and comment pieces, it informs our impressions of the key personalities, it is portrayed in political circles as the root of the “problem”. It is notable – in these fraught and finger-pointing times – that no one (thus far) brings up the educational background of Davis, Fox, Stuart, Duncan Smith, Dorries, Stringer, Bridgen, Francois, Field, Leadsom, Baker, Patel etc; nor anyone at the Scottish Parliament.
The excesses of a few personal ambitions have no relevance to a generation of conscientious, characterful, studious, active and cheerfully argumentative young people. Their individual commitment to public service may or may not be strong, but it is not an obligatory outcome of some form of establishment boot camp. That is as pernicious a view as that which seeks to compare unfavourably the attitudes, ambitions or attributes of state school staff, parents or pupils with those in the independent sector.
I should know. I am both director of the independent schools’ representative body in Scotland and a veteran of 25 years’ Scottish engagement with the EU and chief campaign spokesman for Scotland Stronger in Europe in 2016. I find the idea that the families, teachers, support staff and schools dotted around Scotland are blithely complicit in any way in the dogmatic purities of a couple of dozen far right/left ideologues as needlessly offensive as it is outdated and wide of the mark. Such a standpoint is as lazy an observation as that which labels all Leave voters as closet xenophobes or our European partners as faceless, homogenous autocrats.
These are extraordinary times. Voters on all sides are right to be wary of what lies ahead. To presume to know the motivations, convictions or faults of others on the basis of their blazer will get us nowhere.
John Edward is director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools. He was also chief campaign spokesman for Scotland Stronger in Europe during the 2016 EU referendum campaign