Here in Shetland, we have a surprisingly egalitarian society. Though extremely wealthy and extremely poor people do exist, it’s never something which is displayed at the forefront of social interactions. During high school I never even considered the wealth of my peers’ families. I was both shocked and incredulous to discover that, in some state schools, kids can even be bullied for coming from ‘the estates’. We do, of course, have some areas which develop a reputation for being dodgy, but this is never a prime consideration in creating social relationships.
And, quite significantly, we have no private schools. Every child who grows up in Shetland to adulthood, as I have, will only ever have the option to experience state schools. We use a junior-high model*, in which schools are dotted around rural areas, gradually becoming more centralised as you progress up the ladder. There are dozens of primary schools, seven or so high schools, and two schools which offer Highers and Advanced Highers for 5th and 6th years. Fortunately, I believe these state schools to be among the best in the country**. We always had access to teachers, who were generally excellent; the schools were wealthy enough to provide us with all resources we needed; and everyone could expect to leave school with decent qualifications. I have been fortunate enough to see state education at its best.
And yet, still it pales in comparison to what I hear about private schools: one-to-one tuition; studies in Latin, Greek, most sciences imaginable; after-school clubs; exceedingly high performance rates? I’m sure private schools like to claim they have the best students, and that it’s purely coincidence that these academically ‘gifted’ young people also happen to have wealthy families. The concept of receiving a better education if you’re ‘willing’ to pay for it is completely alien to me and, frankly, abhorrent. I don’t wish at all to glorify private education, but they really do seem to get results. Not just during school, but afterwards; the impression I have – perhaps wrongly – is that private schools are determined to successful alumni in all fields, and that they often achieve this. Therefore, having a wealthier and more privileged background very probably means you yourself will lead a wealthy and privileged life. This strikes me as utterly unfair.
But I don’t intend to lament the supposedly superior quality of private schools. I regret nothing about my state education. I’m confident there are infinitely more benefits from sending a child to a state school than private. It exposes them to a variety of views and backgrounds in the natural diversity you find in all state schools. State schools probably give students a much healthier view of themselves; that they’re neither privileged nor handicapped, but have the exact same opportunities and potentials as their peers, and any results they achieve are solely through their own effort. Teachers will be there because they genuinely care about education and teaching, rather than simply seeking a well-paid, comfortable career.
I do recognise that many state schools across the country are of a lower standard than the education I received, which makes me very sad. A year or so ago, a teacher told me about a school in a rough area of Aberdeen she used to work at which was clearly failing its pupils. It’s an imperative necessity to improve the quality of such schools, to provide a free, high-standard of education for all. We mustn’t let wealth and privilege determine the quality of a child’s education. If I ever have children of my own, you can be quite certain that I’ll proudly enrol them into a state school.
*The council currently seeks to close many of these high schools, much to the outrage of many in these rural communities.
**They’re also among the few schools in the country to not have school uniforms. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that allowing more freedom of expression produces better results all round.