Sector trends

Scottish private schools: still top of the class?

How are Scotland’s independent schools responding to the new challenges they face?

Around 37,000 children attend private schools in Scotland. But with Brexit looming, a possible second independence referendum and a significant number of Scots who want to strip away the schools’ charity status, does the sector have new lessons to learn?

Figures suggest it is well set to face its challenges, with enrolment remaining broadly steady, despite a gentle decline over recent years. A 2016 report for the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), which represents a majority of the nation’s independent schools, found its members to have contributed £247m to the Scottish public purse the previous year.

“Private education is thriving,” says John Edward, director of the SCIS. “The quality and diversity of our education keeps pupils coming.”

Scotland’s independent education stretches from Edinburgh and Glasgow (together home to 40% of Scottish private schools) to the north, east and west coasts. Fees range from means-tested assisted places up to around £25,000 a year for day pupils, and 19 schools take boarders. The learning itself is also varied: most schools offer a Scottish education and Highers exams, a handful follow an English A-level curriculum, some teach the International Baccalaureate and a few even combine all three.

“The choice does attract many families, particularly from overseas,” says Dorothy MacGinty, head of Kilgraston School in Perth, which topped a recent league table for Advanced Highers. “Doing Highers in five subjects slots in well with other systems, such as in Germany or Spain. “And because students can take their Highers here in S5 [year 11 in England and Wales], they get qualifications earlier so are more likely to get unconditional university offers. Already [in March] about half of our upper sixth know where they’re going to university. Students in England can’t confirm that until August.”

The Brexit effect

The sands are shifting, however – and recent political events are bringing uncertain times. In Edinburgh, where an unusually high one in four pupils are privately educated, some forecasters predict Brexit could prompt an exodus of financial institutions, and consequently the children that their employees send to school.

Cameron Wyllie, principal at the city’s George Heriot’s School, is unconvinced. “If every one of the city’s finance firms upped and left, yes, that would affect all of us in some way. But it won’t happen. The closest comparison is the financial crash – we weren’t affected at all by that. The truth is we have no idea what Brexit will bring.”

Edward agrees: “Like everyone else, we wait to see the impact. Many of our foreign language teachers come from mainland Europe. If Brexit restricts their movement, that will be an issue. New border rules may impact the number and variety of trips and exchanges, with issues around visa restrictions, driving licences, insurance.

“And international pupil numbers may be affected by companies’ foreign investment or relocation. That said, factors making one company leave Scotland might attract another. And the pound being so low is good news for foreign families coming here.”

International pupil numbers may be affected by companies’ relocation. That said, factors making one company leave Scotland might attract another

John Edward
Director, Scottish Council for Independent Schools

At Kilgraston, political events further afield are having an impact. Says MacGinty: “We’ve seen a fall in enquiries from Mexican families anxious about what Donald Trump will do, and how it will affect their exchange rate and ability to send their children here. At the moment Trump is having more impact than Brexit.”

A second independence referendum, too, may alter things – but Edward insists it’s too early to tell. “The separate negotiations that follow that might change things,” he says. “But our schools were all scenario-planning ahead of IndyRef1. And if a school is good enough, you’d think that country’s constitution wouldn’t make too much difference.”

Charitable status

But there’s another challenge closer to home: a recent YouGov poll reported that 44% of Scots wanted private schools to lose their charitable status, while 7% supported a complete ban.

So do the schools need to prove their charitable worth? “We do a lot of work justifying our charity status,” says MacGinty. “We are a Catholic school with a Sacred Heart ethos, so we do a lot of community work, and other schools use our buildings and grounds for free.”

Says Edward: “I think it’s more about us getting the message across about what we do. We share our facilities, classes, resources and transport with state schools; we save the state system £156m a year. Our means-tested fee assistance has gone up three times in the last 10 years, we offer numerous bursaries, and every school has a community programme.

“Scotland’s test of charitable status [by the Scottish Charity Regulator] is very stringent. Almost every one of our schools passed first time, and after implementing a couple of recommendations, they have all now passed.”

Wyllie believes the YouGov poll reflects a “disjunction” between public perceptions and what a charity actually is. “To be a charity you must fulfil a set purpose for public benefit – these purposes include education. I believe every school, state and independent, should have charitable status.

“But community work is an extremely high priority. We have links with 32 different voluntary service providers – our sixth-formers do curricular volunteering, with the disabled, the elderly. I understand why people hold that view, but it’s because of a skewed public perception of what charities are, and what private schools are.”

Overseas competition

The main headwind facing the sector, says Edward, is ever-increasing competition. “We’re in a global market. We’re up against South African schools that are half the price and have 300 days of sunshine a year; schools in Australia, New Zealand. A British ‘kitemark’ school opens somewhere in the world virtually every day; in six months two Scottish independent school headteachers have been appointed to run Brighton Colleges in the Emirates.”

But, he says, Scottish schools can look forward with confidence, because of their product. “Our schools deliver in terms of quality, diversity of subjects, and wrap-around care,” he says. “Education must offer a breadth of choice, not close off subjects to kids who at the age of 13 don’t know if they want to be an artist or a scientist – especially when we’re telling them they’ll end up in careers that haven’t been invented yet. Scottish independent schools offer some of the best education in the world.”

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