Much chat in the salons of Perthshire at present about the three programmes on Glenalmond College – BBC2 Scotland only, I’m afraid. Feelings seem pretty mixed. But then I would say that since, as part of the College Council, I had a share in the decision to allow the programmes to be made.
My feeling is that the group who came out best was the staff. Pupils are more fortunate than they know to have staff around who don’t just teach – but do a lot of caring, nudging and encouraging as well. Our children went to Portadown College, our local grammar school – and local grammar schools in Northern Ireland are excellent. But as I watched the Glenalmond staff at work, I asked myself who did all that stuff with our children – struggling with the UCAS form, role-playing interviews, sorting out what they were going to do next? The school did its best. But we did much of it.
I think that in the end what I found disappointing was that the three programmes were trivial about important issues. No real exploration of what it means to use very loaded words like ‘Pride and Privilege’ .. about the range of different things which parents who choose Glenalmond or similar schools hope that their £24000 will buy. Some are simply buying the best and most rounded education they think they can have for their children. The shadow side – and there is always a shadow side – is that some may be seeking to buy access to privileged networks of ‘one of us’ contacts. And in the middle are those tangible but indefinable things which independent schools tend to bestow and state schools do not – the sense of independence, self-confidence and leadership. But they missed the opportunity and caricatured instead. Every time I appeared dressed in funny clothes, they said how traditional the school is – no exploration of the extent to which it is a faith school or of the real significance of the chapel and its life in the school – no challenge to the church about pride and privilege. Should we not be with the poor and the outcast?
Half my day will be spent at Glenalmond tomorrow. I find it a fascinating place and I admire much of what it does. I carry into it years spent serving on and chairing Boards of Governors in schools in Northern Ireland. I think particularly of Killicomaine Junior High School – where our children also went. The budget was 20% of the resources available to Glenalmond. The Governors were local people – parents, teachers, local councillors – doing their best to support the school community. Never anything like enough money. Struggles with a small minority of parents who made the school very difficult to manage at times. But take a look at their website and marvel at what they achieve with so little.
The heart of education for me is parents trying to do the best they can for their children. That is as true of Killicomaine as it is true of Glenalmond. But the issues raised by the differences deserve a more serious exploration than they received.