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Girls’ schooling in Scotland


“Elite Girls’ 21st Century Schooling in Scotland: Habitus Clive in a Shifting Landscape”


Joan Forbes , Claire Maxwell & Elspeth McCartney (2020 online): British Journal of Educational Studies.

What’s it about?

This paper looks at how the private school sector in Scotland has responded to the changing economic and social context.

Traditionally, the mission of elite girls’ schools in Scotland has been to create the nation’s academic and civic elite.

To achieve this, they have provided a liberal, academic education to at least equal that provided for boys. They have recruited pupils from families with ‘valuable social, cultural, economic, symbolic, and intellectual capital’, deploying pedagogies, buildings and space to this end, ‘often creating a physically, socio-economically and culturally segregated environment’, with an additional emphasis on sports and on sustaining self-confidence.

This paper examines how schools have responded to inward migration into Scotland of a new relatively skilled affluent population, and also their response to increased regulation in particular from the newly-created Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR).

This Office tightened the requirements around charitable status and benefits. In addition, a reform of business taxes was legislated, which meant that private schools would soon have to pay these taxes in full, just as state schools do.


The researchers conducted in-depth, partly structured interviews with the heads and recently-retired heads of four private girls’ schools in Scotland.

What are the findings?

  • The schools have maintained their emphasis on academic excellence, while continuing to shift emphasis towards girls’ achieving highly in science, technology and maths subjects.
  • At the same time, they have reduced or eliminated their academic selectivity. As one interviewee put it: “We had children of below average ability, which meant that we had to put a lot of investment into support for learning.” They have had to provide anew for such children (e.g. expanding the Learning Support department) and find new ways of preparing pupils for success in life that does not always involve going to a high-status university. Whereas in the past all girls were expected to aim for a good university, “we really don’t have any preconceived ideas about what these girls are going to do”.
  • The schools have adapted to the needs of highly-resourced migrants, including by providing a protected environment for girls.
  • The interviewees also note that maintaining charitable status was taking up more energy, and thought that some schools might abandon their charitable status and accompanying obligations to provide public benefit.

In sum, the schools have been adapting to circumstances  and trying to stay ahead of the game, while maintaining their traditional focus.

So far they have been able to use their extensive capital resources to steer this course without the radical change that might stem from ‘irreconcilable identifications’. It seems to be an unfinished story.

What are the limitations of this research?

The research only interviewed four people, albeit all of these were involved deeply in elite school management. Moreover, the research only reports the headteachers’ reflections and viewpoints: their fears over charitable status or business tax reforms may exaggerate how much these are genuine threats to their existence and functioning.

Explained by: Francis Green, Professor of Work and Education Economics at UCL Institute of Education.


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