IT is more than a year since we took the difficult decision to send our son to a private school.

I have spent most of my life wondering why they exist at all – in my youth, it was just asking myself why other children were treated differently. I remember feeling odd that two brothers from near where I grew up on a council estate in Fife were sent to a school where the parents had to actually pay for their education! As it happens, I later found out that they had their school fees paid for by the government, through a system called the “assisted places scheme”, which was phased out in the late 1990s by Tony Blair’s government. I even wrote to my MP at the time to encourage him to end this unfair system, which seemed to only be open to those parents who were in-the-know.

I also remember cycling back from my newspaper round on dark, wet mornings, seeing queues of uniformed children awaiting buses to take them to Edinburgh, and then wondering, what is this unfairness? What was so special about these children and why can some children receive a leg-up, while I can’t access that? Later, a friend from high school, went to Aberdeen University to study law and on graduation applied for legal jobs in Edinburgh – he did manage to be recruited into a law firm there, but he was exasperated by the interviewers having no interest in which university he attended or how well he did, all they wanted to know was which high school he had attended.

Looking back now to my own university days, some students spoke differently and had different mannerisms, but claimed to be Scottish – how could this be? They didn’t sound like me and I now know that some of them would never have made it into tertiary education without the boost that their independent schooling gave them.

Our family has suffered from a form of symbolic violence in Edinburgh – questions about our choice of education for our children directed at us and even somewhat aggressively at our children. One woman, who had met my son for the very first time, didn’t ask him his name or what his favourite football team was; she didn’t even ask him his age or anything about his toys – she simply lent over and loudly and pointedly asked him which school he attended. She was lucky that I wasn’t standing next to her when she spoke to him in that way, or I might be writing this from HMP Saughton.

As it happens, I am writing this from my comfortable apartment in Edinburgh, where I stay. Fortunate? Yes, I have a great job and I am paid well for what I do. Do I work hard? Excruciatingly so – but I also know that everyone works hard and that everyone deserves the best that Scotland can offer. Privileged? Definitely not – I don’t think you’d meet any of my friends or professional colleagues who would describe me as this. Yes voter? You bet I am, and I have the blisters from the AUOB marches to prove it.

This made it all the harder. My son wasn’t performing well at school. He was struggling with basic reading, writing and mathematics; our beloved local state school was stretched, and we felt it just wasn’t managing to give him the dedication that he needed. We may have been wrong, and it was all going to be alright in the end, but we didn’t want to take the risk of leaving him to fall even further behind. After turning ourselves inside-out with worry, we finally started researching the local independent schools in Edinburgh and, to be frank, we didn’t even apply to the mid-level private schools, such as Heriots or Watsons, we went straight for one of Scotland’s elite private schools, where the fees are well in excess of the median salary for the average Scots employee.

He enrolled there last year and, while it’s not everything we wanted, he has made tremendous progress. It wasn’t what we expected either. It’s a very welcoming environment and there’s a real range of children there – for sure some kids are from very wealthy families but others are very normal and all the parents and children we have met so far have been lovely. So what is different about education there?

First of all, it’s strict – absolutely no nonsense allowed. I sat in on some classes, and there is banter between the kids and each class has its characters like any other school, but it’s handled very firmly but fairly. The children play and have fun, but they are not allowed to be late; they have to eat their lunch (which is supervised and is provided each day included in the fees); they have to do their homework and hand it in (one hour of homework is compulsory each night Monday – Saturday); they have to be polite (opening doors for adults is an example) and the primary school day is longer – 8am-4pm and 8am-1pm on a Saturday. There is a focus on hard work but there is also a palpable positive and supportive mindset. The children all do six hours of PE or sports per week and there’s no getting out of this: the kids can’t turn up with a note saying they can’t do it, or saying they have forgotten their gym kit – this just would not be tolerated. Each evening, after their homework is completed, they can stay for an evening meal (many of the parents have jobs requiring long hours) and the kids can take part in other evening activities, such as chess club or frisbee games, which means that on some days, the kids can be in the school from 8am-7pm. The schoolwork is really intense, but the children seem to thrive in this environment.

As parents, we receive termly feedback on our son’s progress, and this is based on twice-yearly testing and in-class assessments. The assessment is all based around effort – grades are awarded for trying, not necessarily performance. Naturally, the class sizes are smaller than state schools – my son had a class of only 15 pupils last year – and the teachers can dedicate more of their time to each child. Despite being a primary school, the children move around the classrooms, attending different subjects such as science, art and even Latin.

Overall, the mums and dads are not very different to the parents I have met in other schools – they care about their kids and they want the best for them, as any parent would. In broad terms, of course they are better off, which means that many of the kids have access to better food, overseas holidays, new clothes, family cars and stimulation during the school holidays and whilst this inequality is going to take generations to resolve, it doesn’t mean that these schools should be closed or penalised in some way (as I once felt). We should all aspire for all schools and all pupils to have the very best educational opportunities, no matter their background.

I do wonder what our education system can learn from the independent sector. Of course, money helps and, if all schools had all the resources at my son’s school, our educational output across Scotland would be different. I do think our school week is too short as many pupils in the state sector have barely four-and-a-half days of classroom time. But there are some things that cost very little: aspirations for the children to be the best they can be; firm but fair structures in the schools; expectations that the children will turn up on time and do as they are instructed; and finally, parents who will make sure that the kids take every opportunity afforded to them.
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