Scottish society should be moving towards a situation in which independent schools are “phased out” as a result of family choice, according to the authors of a major report.

One said it had already started to happen in places such as Newton Mearns, near Glasgow, adding that the quality of local state secondaries was encouraging parents to enrol children at the likes of St Ninian’s and Williamwood High rather than “ferry them half-way across the city” to private sector rivals.

The study – published by the Jimmy Reid Foundation (JRF) on the first day of the 2021 STUC Annual Congress – insists “all education should be free”, while warning radical change will be needed to counter the effects of deprivation and a “neo-liberal”, market-driven agenda.

It also says closing the attainment gap will not happen without tackling poverty and stresses that “positive attempts” to reduce inequality should begin in the early years.

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Holding up the Finnish system as an example, it adds: “There is no place for private schools in a country which sees education as a public good.”

But senior figures at the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS) hit back, saying the enduring popularity of their sector was a reflection of underlying strengths such as the focus on individual learners and extracurricular activity.

They also insisted access had been widened through schemes including mandatory, means-tested fee assistance.

The JRF report was written by Brian Boyd, Henry Maitles and John Kelly. Mr Boyd and Mr Maitles are emeritus professors of education at the universities of Strathclyde and the West of Scotland, respectively. Mr Kelly is a lecturer in business at West College Scotland.

HeraldScotland: Eastwood High pupils celebrate their exam results with headteacher Stuart Maxwell. The school, one of Scotland's best, is among those whose quality is encouraging parents to opt for the state sector, according to Henry Maitles.Eastwood High pupils celebrate their exam results with headteacher Stuart Maxwell. The school, one of Scotland's best, is among those whose quality is encouraging parents to opt for the state sector, according to Henry Maitles.

Summarising their argument, the authors state: “We need to intervene early, postpone the age of formal education, ensure that early years are based on play and outdoor learning, and raise staffing levels and funding in our nurseries and primaries.

“Secondary schools should never again be in thrall to an examination system which distorts learning and teaching, and institutionalises failure for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Nor should internal selection in schools, supported by universities’ ever increasing entrance requirements, be continued. Further and higher education need to become much more student and community focused.”

HeraldScotland: Progress in closing the education attainment gap in Scottish schools has been slow and limited, according to recent research.Progress in closing the education attainment gap in Scottish schools has been slow and limited, according to recent research.

Mr Maitles told The Herald that he and his fellow authors were also keen to understand “why it is there are no, or very few, private schools” in Finland.

“The answer is because the state schools are so good,” he said.

“There’s no need to have private education. We want secondary schools to be so good in an area that well off parents opt for their local secondary and that, in this way, you would have a situation in which private schools are gradually phased out.

“In Newton Mearns, for example, it has already begun to happen. Many affluent parents in that area send their kids to St Ninian’s, Eastwood High, Williamwood High or Mearns Castle. Parents want their children to go to these schools rather than ferry them half-way across the city to the High School or Kelvinside Academy.

“It’s interesting that private education in the primary sector is much smaller in Scotland. Why are parents more likely to send their kids to private secondary schools if they can? It’s primarily because those schools get better exam results, which takes you back to the whole issue of the exams ‘tail’ wagging the ‘dog’ of the wider education system.

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“And why do the private schools get better results? It’s because they’re choosing students from the most affluent parts of the country, and you have advantages such as far better teacher-pupil ratios. It reinforces the fact that the education attainment gap reflects the wealth gap in society.

“If you had a more creative, active learning-based assessment system, it might make it easier for the kids in the deprived areas to do better – and then you’re changing the whole ball game. Although to really challenge educational inequality, the government must tackle poverty.”

Mr Maitles also said there was a need for greater focus on Scottish history and culture.

“It needs to be more than just the Highland Clearances or the Industrial Revolution or the Wars of Independence,” he added.

“It needs to look much more at Scotland’s place in the world and at its culture. And when I say culture, I mean culture in the broadest sense. It means examining Scotland’s role in the slave trade as part of the British Empire, for example.”

HeraldScotland: SCIS Director John Edward said the enduring popularity of private schools was due to a range of strengths.SCIS Director John Edward said the enduring popularity of private schools was due to a range of strengths.

Leaders at SCIS insisted there were about as many independent schools in Finland as in Scotland but stressed those in the Nordic country were state-subsidised.

Director John Edward said: “The simple reality is that generations of Scottish families have chosen to use the independent sector, and that shows no signs of changing.

“Subject choice, focus on the individual learner, teacher numbers, extra-curricular focus and support for learning are all offered as reasons families chose the independent sector. In the last 15 years, the independent sector in Scotland has undertaken a unique and radical charity test – which widens access through mandatory means-tested fee assistance and other forms of support for families and communities.

“That widening access, supported by parental fee income, is equal per capita to the state-funded bursary support in higher education.”

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He added: “An active debate on all aspects of Scottish education is welcome. Independent schools will remain a vocal, successful and supportive part of that as long as families and pupils want them to.”