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Choice, diversity, excellence: schools, Scotland and independence

| March 26, 2013 | 0 Comments

By John Edward

The concept and the practice of independent education differ from country to country.

Each system reflects the educational history and development of the country in which it has grown, and many draw influences from other countries, not least from the United Kingdom (UK). However, even within the UK, while the challenges, choices and charges of schools are the same, there have been many years of divergence in structure and approach.

Seeking full separation

Scotland is a case study of the diversity within independent education, just as it demonstrates diversity in the UK in many other fields – political, social, cultural and sporting. The current debate over Scottish political independence is in part a product of centuries of history, and in part the delayed reaction to a political reality in Scotland that has changed utterly in recent years. The creation of an autonomous Scottish parliament was radical enough, but that parliament is now governed by a Scottish National Party, which seeks full separation from the rest of the UK.

Education has always been a Scotland-specific matter, long before the devolution of parliamentary responsibility in 1999 caught up with the administrative variety. The Education (Scotland) Act 1872 took over the running of schools from the Church of Scotland’s Board of Education and in 1885, the Scotch Education Department was established within the new Scottish Office – until recently an autonomous department of the UK government.

Schooling some 31 000 students

In the independent sector, some schools in membership of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS) became independent following changes to state support in the mid- 1970s and some are younger still than that, while others predate the 1707 Treaty of Union itself. From religious institutions established in the 12th and 13th centuries, through the merchant philanthropy of the 17th and 18th centuries to the liberal classicist adherents of the 19th century, Scotland contains a wide range of histories and approaches in a sector that numbers around 60 mainstream schools overall.

SCIS members also number a range of national and regional specialist and special needs centres, as well as one run by the UK Ministry of Defence for the children of active service families. There are presently over 31 000 children educated independently in Scotland, with approximately 3 500 in boarding schools.1

Substantial changes to Scottish school exams and school inspections

Devolution in 1999 kicked off a game of educational reorganisation which, if not now close to the final whistle, may at least be into its second half. The first Labour–Liberal coalition in the early years designed an ‘inter-subject’ called Curriculum for Excellence2 which, in truth, is more a methodology than a curriculum. Implementation of this has, unsurprisingly, not been straightforward, although its adoption and use by independent schools is entirely voluntary. The basic principle, however, of cross-curricular and less prescriptive learning, is second nature to the independent sector.

The curricular moves have, in turn, prompted substantial changes to the Scottish portfolio of examinations. In 2013–14, Standard and Intermediate exams will be replaced by a new National 4 and 5,3 only the latter of which will be externally assessed. More modest reform of the relatively respected Higher and Advanced Higher examinations will follow thereafter. Independent school teachers in Scotland have been disproportionately involved in the design of the individual subject courses. As England and Wales will soon be able to testify, any major reorganisation of examinations is a time of concern for heads, parents and teaching staff.

This will be true for those Scottish independent schools that offer General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and Advanced/Advanced Subsidiary (A/AS) level, which the UK government is committed to reforming radically. Another halfdozen Scottish schools are now firmly rooted in the International Baccalaureate diploma programme and are finding the experience both challenging and rewarding.

Not to be outdone, there has also been recent change in the inspection framework. Unlike elsewhere in the UK, Scottish independent schools are still inspected by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, which falls within another new body, Education Scotland. Although not bound by state curricular changes or examination diets, the sharing of an inspectorate appears to work well, not least because the inspectorate was at pains to develop a new framework of inspections in cooperation with the independent sector. Full school inspections and professional engagement visits are tailored towards the independent sector, supported by ‘link’ teams of specific inspectors.

Registration of teachers preferred

One noted area of difference, indeed independence, within UK education is that of teaching itself. While the General Teaching Council (GTC) for England and Wales has been abolished recently, the GTC Scotland (GTCS)4 has moved in the opposite direction to full operational independence. While registration of independent school teachers in Scotland is preferred rather than required, there are hurdles to jump for those from elsewhere in the UK who wish to have their teaching qualifications and experience recognised by the GTCS. SCIS works hard to assist the smooth assimilation of gap-year students and newly and fully qualified teachers from outside the European Union into Scottish schools – given the strong interest from southern Africa, North America and Australia, among others.

Pensions and charitable status two key issues

Teachers in Scotland are even members of a separate Scottish Teachers’ Superannuation Scheme, which offers similar but distinct pension benefits to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS). Public pensions are an issue for extremely heated debate in the UK at present, with plans for a complete overhaul of state-funded schemes by 2015, but only once agreement is reached on future reform and membership of the scheme in London can a similar process begin in Scotland. Positive results for the independent sector would be as welcome in Kinross as they would in Kent. It would, however, take a brave soul to predict the structure of public sector pensions should Scottish political independence come to pass.

Pensions, along with the charitable status of independent schools, have been the two great existential issues of recent years. The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR)5 operates under an Act which, uniquely for the UK, makes explicit provision concerning the public benefit that charities should provide, and especially mentions the possible barriers to access that fees and charges might present. Nevertheless, all 13 schools tested for the provision of public benefit have now passed the charity test in Scotland, and the remaining 40 are going through an expedited process at present, informed by the time-consuming and intensive work that the first schools undertook. Whether as a result of the charity test, or concurrent with it, many schools have moved the bulk of their bursary provision to a means-tested basis in recent years.

Defining independence in our own terms

SCIS is always conscious that the centre of political gravity in Scotland does not always fall on the side of sympathy with the independent sector. The summer of 2012 saw another rash of sweeping generalisations by some politicians about the schools, the families they serve and the pupils they produce. Great success stories from the London Olympics and Paralympics helped stir this debate,6 with questions asked of the disproportionate success of the independent sector – just as questions are asked each year on our publication of excellent exam results and school graduate destinations. It is not for nothing that SCIS chose as its motto ‘Choice, diversity, excellence’.

What the kaleidoscope of Scottish education would look like if it were given the greatest shake of all by a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum for Scottish independence, scheduled for 2014, is anyone’s guess. The current Scottish Government has had little reason to comment specifically on the independent sector, except to observe that it forms part of the “rich tapestry” of Scottish education and contributes turnover in excess of £200 million a year. Until the focus of the referendum debate sharpens, it is likely to stay that way. In the meantime, and thereafter, we will continue to define independence in Scotland in our own terms.



2. whatiscurriculumforexcellence/index.asp.



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6. playing-fields-of-eton/.

Category: Autumn 2013, Featured Articles

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