I enjoyed Tom Chidwick's
article on the failure of our education system to live up to long-established Scottish educational principles of equal opportunity and fair access for all. It provided a useful historical context to understanding how we got to where we are now from the advent of comprehensive system in the mid-1960s. It is clear from the exam grades mess that the priority of the Scottish Government and the SQA was to protect the integrity of the 'system'. It is also clear that if that led, as it did before John Swinney's U-turn, to pupils from poorer backgrounds being more heavily penalised than their more privileged peers then there must be something seriously amiss with the system.
There was one strange omission, however, in Tom's survey of the divisive nature of our education system, and that was that he made no mention of the private schools or so-called 'independent sector'. While these schools account for only about 5% of all Scottish school pupils (but more than 20% of Edinburgh pupils) they represent a layer of even greater privilege sitting above all state schools. This privilege does not of course end when pupils leave school but extends into many areas of life, such as higher education, politics, the civil service, medicine and the law. This is not the fault of the children who attend these schools (and I write this as one of them) but until we address this issue we will not begin to correct the imbalances of fairness and opportunity that mark all our lives from our early years.
It should be possible in a small country like ours to devise a system which upholds the laudable principles of comprehensive education whilst also acknowledging that many children have additional educational needs of different kinds. Rather than wholesale abolition of the private schools, they should over a period of years be incorporated into the state system: some could become centres of excellence and/or of specialism (such as music, art, sport, engineering, outdoor activities) open to all who would benefit from time spent away from their usual school. This kind of development, together with serious investments of money, resources and imaginative thinking into the whole education system, could begin to challenge Tom Chidwick's accurate assertion that at present 'where people go to school is more important than their own abilities to their future success'.
I went to Kirkcaldy High School, one year behind Gordon Brown, but I don't recognise Tom Chidwick's 'omnibus school'. KHS was a selective 'senior secondary' and Kirkcaldy had junior secondaries which took those who failed the Qualy. KHS divided its intake into two streams, one of which studied Latin, while the other got gender-based practical subjects like woodwork. Additionally, both Brown and I were part of a short-term experiment that took a selection of what would nowadays be called P6 kids to secondary a year early, bypassing P7.
While there were distinct secondary schools in the town with the disadvantages that Tom Chidwick describes, late developers at the junior secondaries could and sometimes did switch school after fourth year so as to move on to Highers and beyond. However, they were rarities. I suspect that the system then was more effective at turning out a cohort with lots of exam passes. The merit or otherwise of that is a whole different question.
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