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A few weeks ago I met four sixth year students at one of Edinburgh’s most prestigious private schools, one which, despite my reservations about private schooling, I admire enormously.  The purpose was an evaluation of their course choice experience.  We were told they were representative of their year group and reflected the ability spread.

They were delightful, courteous, articulate and confident young women.  (It was a single-sex school.)  They handled their interviewers with skill.

They had a fair knowledge of the careers they hoped to follow, had applied for University and were clear about the courses they wished to pursue and the Universities they sought to enter.
As well as enjoying the interaction, I had a brief dream.  Had I a magic wand, I would have redistributed 5% of the confidence and articulacy of each of these young women among nine or ten of their equivalents in my former school, one which served one of Edinburgh’s poorest areas.  The four young women would barely miss 5% of their social and intellectual capital.  It would make a world of difference to my former charges.
It was of course only a dream.  Magic wands do not exist.
The school’s head suggested that part of the confidence was attributable to the school’s single-sex nature.  She may well be right.  Certainly girls need time working in all-girl groups to avoid the brash arrogance of the male adolescent.
Paradoxically perhaps, the experience reinforced my commitment to comprehensive education.  Over a year ago six girls from my former school and six from this particular independent school took part in a joint leadership development course, supposedly culminating in a week on Skye, where, under, the leadership of staff from Columba 1400, they met major challenges and developed as individual human beings.  They recognised the strengths of each other and,perhaps most importantly, abandoned stereotypes, recognising that the strengths were not all in one group, nor the weaknesses in another.
In fact the experience has yet to ‘culminate’.  The girls still meet socially and they recently made an inspiring presentation at an educational conference on their joint experiences.  That leadership course was not a world-changing event.  Its implications were largely personal, for the girls and staff, but their perceptions of themselves, each other and the city in which they reside were changed irrevocably as they recognised that they had far more in common than they had ever believed could be the case.
I want students to develop confidence and self-belief through education which challenges them.  I want all young people to mix with each other, irrespective of wealth or background.  (I know that one aspect of the attraction of private education is precisely that it avoids such mixing.)  I want to pull young people from their own, often fairly limited social settings, and see how other young people live, to share their confidence, strengths and skills and to recognise these in others.
The sad thing is that, especially in a city such as Edinburgh, the social divide, exacerbated by parental choice, has created chasms between schools in the comprehensive sector, let alone between the comprehensive and private sectors.
I remain committed however to the concept of a kinder, less divided, more cooperative world; to a less grasping and materialistic society.  I believe that if young people do not start with preconceptions and stereotypes such improvements would be more likely; if even some of the confidence and articulacy of those I met were shared among their peers across the social spectrum, we would inhabit a more decent and kindly world.  I want to wave my magic wand.
The above article first appeared (with a minor typographical error, corrected in this version) in SecEd on 15 March 2012:

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