Pride and Privilege

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.


  1. Good to hear from you, Iner. I’ll have to find out which bit of the engine-room you inhabit. I’m more of a visitor – taking the occasional stroll on the promenade deck.

    I think the difficulties with the programmes began with the decision to ‘follow the stories’ of a number of pupils and staff. That’s fine. But of course those choices were presumably and understandably made on the basis of what would make good television. Still .. some really intelligent programme-making would have been able to use those stories to begin to uncover some of the underlying issues and the untold stories.

    My problem is that it all intersects with bits of my background and experience – growing up in Enniskillen where my father was on the staff and long involvement in school management in the controlled sector in Northern Ireland. Wonderful people and never enough resources.

  2. I have thought long and hard before responding, +David.
    Speaking as a very small cog in the intricate gearing of the big wheels which drive Glenalmond College – which is, for me, a wonderful place to work – (and also as a fellow ‘Norn Irelander’ in origin!) I must say that I regarded ‘Pride and Privilege’ as a bit of a ‘curate’s egg’; it was, indeed, ‘good in parts’; but overall I think it was a good opportunity lost.
    Another title might have been more apposite, the subtitle was a bit of a misnomer, there was little to illustrate either historical context, the marvellous geographical setting (apart from the superb aerial shots), or the logistics of how a self-contained educational establishment functions on a quotidian basis, or how it relates to the wider community; and the editing of the third instalment looked for all the world like a rushed-got-to-meet-the-deadline-cut-and-paste-panic-job.
    That said, there is one unanswered question about ‘Pride and Privilege’. For whom was this series of three programmes made? Who, what, and where was the intended audience in the eyes of the programme makers? (Yes, I know that’s two questions, but, hey, I’m Oirish, whadye want? Perfection? Perfection only exists with Our Lord and Greek philosophers!)
    So, overall, I think the report card on the production should read “Could have done better.” There is another television programme to be made which truly captures the ethos of Glenalmond;
    where the ‘pride’ epitomises Seamus Heaney’s ‘sense of place’, and where the ‘privilege’ of actually being there is unspoken.

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  4. Couldn’t agree more, +David. Sadly what came across to me and to other similar places where I’ve been in the last fortnight was a travesty of the reality of education in independent schools. And I’m afraid in the current OSCR-conscious culture no favours have been done to the public perception of the entire sector.

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