It’s amazing what politicians say with a straight face.  Edinburgh Education Leader, Marilyn MacLaren, is leading a campaign to convince parents to send their children to their local school.  Ironically Councillor MacLaren not only didn’t send hers to the local school, she didn’t even send them to a Local Authority school.
In the same week The Sunday Herald illustrated varying University rates entry from Scottish schools.  It was unfortunate that ‘post-code lottery’ cliché was applied. It isn’t about where young people live but about the social status of secondary schools’ catchments.

While 98% of Fettes students and 97% of Glasgow High School students entered higher education, only 5.1% from Govan High, 8% from Craigroyston and 8.4% from my own former school, Wester Hailes Education Centre, did so.  The issue was not private sector good, public sector bad.  These comprehensives serve areas of significant poverty.  The Royal High School, adjacent to Craigroyston, sends 46.8% and Firhill, adjacent to Wester Hailes, hits 49.5%.  Part of the problem is that parental choice has exacerbated these differences.  Many of the more ambitious parents opt out of local schools, especially in the economically poorest areas.
These statistics might suggest that if your local school is Govan High or Wester Hailes, a simple move to an adjacent school would guarantee higher education for your child.  Even better, if you have the money, enrolment at Fettes would almost certainly propel your child to the dreaming spires.  Of course this isn’t the case.  Every year students head to University from comprehensives in Urban Scotland’s poorest areas; these schools are as able as any to prepare students, both attitudinally and in terms of qualifications, for university.
Statistics, on parental occupation and poverty, tell the more complex aspects of the story.  In 2008/09, a non-manual worker’s child of was 3.4 times more likely to enter higher education than a manual worker’s child.  Of those on free meals, 9.4% entered higher education.  For those not on free meals that figure quadrupled to 37.8%.  This is not because children of manual workers or the poor are intrinsically less able.  One young woman, recently enrolled at University, stated that in her family university was never discussed.  The emphasis was on getting a good job.  Her father was a manual worker promoted to a manager post and paid a good wage.  “I think it proved to him that the best plan was to get in with a good company, work hard and get promoted.”
But particular attitudes become dominant within particular schools’ culture.  The Head in an Edinburgh secondary serving a fairly affluent area reported almost no take-up for Skills for Work courses in his school.  “The parents and many of the youngsters, even those for whom they are well suited, don’t value them.  They prefer Highers, even if they might fail them.”  In my own school the problem had been the opposite: several of our most academic students opted out of challenging but suitable academic courses and pursued easier vocational options.
What’s certain is that these inequalities won’t be ironed out by Councillor MacLaren’s hollow plea to parents to do what she didn’t do herself.  The Sunday Herald had two radical proposals.  The first was to close schools in the poorest areas and ensure that there was a more genuine social mix in all our comprehensives.  Let’s not dismiss that.  It may be the only way to break the parental choice drift.  The second proposal was for the Scottish government to maintain its free university education policy – but only to students coming from the comprehensive sector.  Now that would demonstrate a real commitment to challenging inequality.
This article was originally published in Holyrood Magazine on 28 November 2011: http://www.holyrood.com/articles/tag/fettes/

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