Being a ‘have’ not a ‘have not’. Privilege in 21st Century Scotland

We open branded hymnbooks, emblazoned with the school’s coat of arms, said heraldry embossed in gold as to shine out from a faux-leather binding. An organ plays a few introductory notes and the school, boys and girls, stands as one and labour into the unmistakable dirge of ‘god save the queen’. This over and done with, the ranks of identically dressed boys (blazer, shirt, black trousers and tie) and girls (blazer, shirt, tie and tartan skirt) sit down to what could loosely be described as an awards ceremony. One by one names are called forward and individuals reverently make their way across a raised stage to collect prizes for various subjects and deeds whose relevance or even existence that I had never really thought of as anything but normal; classics, philosophy, drama, politics, economics, chess, house rugby, poetry, dux of the school. The ceremony lasts about an hour and a half. Speakers, namely ex-alumni whose choice of employment is deemed appropriately inspiring give speeches that are anything but, while the head teacher, decked out in the black robes of an Oxford graduate, stares down at the silent masses with a sense of superiority and power more attuned to the life of Tom Brown’s Rugby than Edinburgh in the 21st century. Yet, here we are. The defining themes of the whole affair are privilege, obedience and boredom in equal measure, tropes that will go on to define the majority of the children and teenagers present for the rest of their lives, lives that on the whole will be spent focusing on the maintenance of the status quo in which we ‘have’ and they, whoever they are, ‘have not’.

The affair draws to a close as an organ belts out some more dreary notes and as one we rise again for another drowsy tune, this time the school hymn, written specifically for the school. The lyrics speak of sins conquered, brotherhoods maintained, courage shown, and God obeyed. In a more sinister turn they also speak of overseas property and landowners guarded as well as decreed races, a worrying finale to a room that is 95% white in a school founded by a Merchant Company with links to the slave trade. The whole show ends as the groundskeepers, today having dropped their work flannels for tailcoats act as ushers to the mass exodus out onto the tree-lined front lawn (an arboretum?) where a pipe band, in full regalia marches back and forth in traditional fashion.

This, for me, was normality.

Evidently, this is anything but.

However I grew up, like any child in their own setting, thinking that classes of 25 people or less were normal. That a full selection of subjects ranging from all the sciences to five modern languages including Mandarin was normal. That having a separate auditorium for musical recitals was normal. That a vast acreage of grounds for the practice of every sport under the sun (with the conspicuous absence of football) was normal. That student support was normal. That careers advice and help with access to tertiary education was normal. That ex-alumni parents sitting on a board of directors and thus tuning the school’s direction was normal. That not paying tax because the school was technically a charity was normal.

This is the normality for over 25% of Edinburgh’s school children.

That’s not to say that school wasn’t normal in a sense. I made friends, lost friends, made new ones etc. I hated some things and tacitly liked others. Felt let down by some teachers while at the same time feeling utterly inspired by some. Though the pomp and circumstance described before was indeed a facet of our education, it wasn’t omnipresent as maybe it would be at Eton or Harrow or at one of the schools that we, children whose parents could afford fees of five figures per annum, labelled ‘posh’ or ‘snobby’.

A lack of awareness of one’s position in the grand and complex hierarchy of the British class system is surely a privilege for those upon whom it has little to no negative effect. I was, as far as I understood the term, from a standard middle-class family. Though I lived in a flat and came from a single parent household, at no point did I feel that situation would put me at a disadvantage, as it surely would to someone from a different family background with a different set of circumstances. My brother’s social problems saw him forcibly removed from the educational basket of privilege only to be replanted in another across town. The 25% generally stays just that, and we always look after our own before others, that was a value transmitted continually throughout my education.

The idea that what I had experienced was anything other than normal was questioned more outside of school. Where the ravages of capitalist self-interest could be seen in the awkward silences when passing homeless people, or the quasi scare stories of what goes on in the housing schemes that remained very much apart from the Edinburgh that we knew; a land of McCall-Smith rather than Irvine Welsh. On seeing the obvious uniform, the word posh, an epithet that we ourselves reserved for those that we considered privileged, was leveled against us in the few times that we found ourselves outside of the bubble that had been created for us.

How did it feel to be called posh, to be a part of the problem?

Awkward certainly, but it certainly didn’t inspire me to question the privilege that I had taken as standard for my whole life. Rather more worryingly it made it clear that society had great gulfs, ones that made life close to impossible for people from lesser socio-economic circumstances. This gulf had a certain affect on the circles in which I frequented. If we were to avoid confrontation, if we were to avoid facing up to the gross inequality of society then the easiest way of doing so would be to keep things ‘in-house’ so to speak.

15 years later, and the fruits of privilege have ripened, flowered into the world of white-collar dominance. We are civil servants, politicians, doctors, property developers, lawyers, managers, bankers, and engineers, already or soon-to-be bigwigs of both private and public enterprise. We are everything that student support and a comically limited careers guide said we would be. We are comfortable, respected and in most cases happy, or at least content. Despite all the calls to ‘check privilege’ or question the status quo, by this point the cycle of insular self-interest has become such a closed-door affair that all efforts at reform are useless.

From this flowers the privileged isolationism that is so rightly the cause of working class anger. Rather than expand out to meet the problems of society and deal with a world that is inherently unfair, privilege closes in on itself and begins to self-perpetuate. The institutions that govern our society, that drive industry, that promote connections and interaction, that look to drive progress are just that, OUR institutions. It is a closed club in which privilege begets privilege and keeps the door shut. University, an unquestioned rite of passage for my contemporaries and I, provided another similar bubble with like-minded people and furthered the self-perpetuation of our very privilege. This in turn granted access to connections and jobs that, were it not for the chance of upbringing, remain and will remain almost impossible to access to those who don’t come from within. One needs only to cast an eye on Westminster to see this manifestation of isolationism at its zenith of resplendent shame.

The scene described at the start of this narrative occurred once a year, an obligatory sufferance for all those concerned. As the tired strains of the UK’s national anthem bathed us with further reminders of the longevity of our subservience to an unelected monarch, I naively asked a teacher as to why the national anthem wasn’t ‘O Flower of Scotland’ only for it to be dismissed out of hand as a ‘rugby song’. Not a football song, a rugby song you’ll note. What does Scottish independence mean to privilege? A huge terrifying change. Now why would anyone blessed with such privilege want change, let alone affect said change?

In 2014 I voted yes, indeed my family have always been vocal advocates of Scottish independence, this despite being privately educated in what could only be described as bastions of Unionism. Like most independence movements, there is an evident left-leaning current to the project, one that clearly clashes with the closed shop of the establishment. There is justified ire on the part of the working classes whose tirades of angst against this insular privilege continue to fall on deaf ears that take little notice of the little nationalist press that does exist. Quite correctly working class communities fear that in the event of a Yes vote, the Westminster model of government and the current, inadequate way of living could easily be transposed in miniature to a newly-independent Scotland in which a privately-educated and predominantly Edinburgh-based elite would thus exercise the same tired rights as Westminster did before, after all we have been brought up to do just that.

Therein the issue lies. There is little point addressing the issues mentioned to fully formed working members of privilege, the damage done by generations of propagated self-interest are deep and perhaps irreparable. Take the rightful removal of charitable status from private schools for instance; an act that is clearly just, yet has caused nothing but rancour on the part of the recipients, those who see it as an erosion of their privilege. The recent questioning of culture, whether the BLM protests or the unveiling of Scotland’s dark imperial past, was met with very little fanfare from private schools, whose identity is bound up the privilege afforded to those that these movements seek to change. Any act of self-assessment is again an attack on the very foundations of said privilege.

Scotland is on the cusp of great political change and independence is a very real prospect. The kind of society that we would like in a new Scotland has been the subject of a great many articles, and it is clear that the model of inherent unfairness inherent within the UK is one thing that must be addressed with a view to complete reform. Opening the bubble of privilege, which critics justifiably see as a threat to a brighter future for Scotland, is only possible through education of those who are growing up within it. If a younger me was one of the few to question the singing of a national anthem, then think of the thousands that don’t, content in their ignorance to affiliate Scotland within the British state but without the tools to question any aspect of it, right or wrong.

One thing that we all have in common, from state school to private is that we sit the same exams regulated by the same body. Regardless of said body’s shameless endorsement of privilege in the recent exam scandal, the fact remains that the themes taught are the same. We have it in our power to ‘empower’ privilege in order for it to understand its place within a wider societal context. This isn’t done by learning a tailored history to suit the status quo, nor is it about passing exams on a conveyer belt to exclusive tertiary education experiences and employment. To generalise, children in positions of privilege do not realise the world that they contributing to, that is the fault of educators and parents intent on maintaining an antiquated and unthreatened power structure. Children with the ability to question what is portrayed as normal can lead to the unravelling of what has been until now a very tightly closed bond. The motion to decolonise education in North Lanarkshire hints at the kind of future in which school-aged children have a more rounded idea of their potential effects on society, and I welcome more moves in this direction.

So why write this? Well, frustration. Middle-class values lie tied up in a culture of guilt and ignorance; guilt at the inherent unfairness from which we benefit, and ignorance of it in order to keep ourselves in the style to which we have become accustomed. Virulent diatribes are the preserve of the slighted workers, while snide critiques of self-worth are the preserve of the upper elites. The middle class mouth stays shut. We make our way and we keep to ourselves, but this blinkered view on things may be good for our own ends in the short-term, but it represents a rotten core at the heart of a new society. It is evident that things have to change for those that ‘have not’, but it’s high time for those who ‘have’ to change with them.





Comments (20)

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  1. Dougie Blackwood says:

    A well written peep behind the curtain for many of us “beyond the pale” in our society. We must try to ensure that if and when we become independent we do not either recreate a society to “be transposed in miniature to a newly-independent Scotland” or try to create a workers paradise at the expense of our well educated elite. We all have different view of what we want from independence. There’s a quote from Burns that springs to mind “An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see,
    I guess an’ fear!” . This quote probably represents the view on many No voters and it is the hurdle that we must overcome.

    In the end we really need to have the discussion. Do we want a socialist republic, more of what we have or something in between. We need the brightest and best to buy into Scotland’s future and we really need to change things so that the poosest in our society have more of a chance to shine. In the end these are tough choices and difficult tricks to manage. The better off in our society will need to put their hand deeper into their pockets and the poorest must be encouraged to take advantage of improved opportunities. First and foremost we must stop the race to the bottom; everyone should be given to opportunity to work within their capabilities and nobody should have to rely on state handouts to achieve enough to live on at an acceptable level. Everyone should pay their taxes and the tax systeme needs to be simplified so that every one of ,what are presently, the many pages no longer includes an escape loophole.

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      ” we really need to change things so that the poorest in our society have more of a chance to shine.”

      We need to deprivilege academic achievement. It is valuable, a mathematician is valuable, A historian is valuable, but so is a carpenter, a mechanic or a skilled gardener.

      We need each person to get the best education for them. If the son/daughter of a millionaire is academically lacking but gifted with their hands their education should cover that. If the child of a checkout assistant shows a talent for Physics, Chemistry or languages their education should accommodate that.

      Comprehensive education failed to do that.

      Never again should a child talented in art be described as “less gifted” as some have done.

      1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

        Aye, education should be less about processing and grading children for society and more about enabling each child to flourish individually; schools organised on the factory model don’t exactly facilitate this.

  2. Foghorn Leghorn says:

    To paraphrase the above: ‘I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.’

  3. Josef Ó Luain says:

    A very fine contribution, Louis—hugely appreciated. I’m reminded of my own wee piece of over thirty years ago, penned in anger at what I referred to as the privileged but politically lazy Scottish middle class. No one was more surprised than I was when it appeared in the pages of Scotland on Sunday; a less than wise career move, most likely. Predictably, my efforts changed absolutely nothing. But, as they say: that was then and this is now.

    1. Josef Ó Luain says:

      Over 20 years ago, not 30. Apologies.

  4. florian albert says:

    ‘middle class values lie tied up in a culture of guilt and ignorance’

    I do not think that the Edinburgh middle class, those who sent their children to the city’s private schools, are either guilty or ignorant. Rather, they are selfish and this failing is not unique to the middle class.
    At university, decades ago, I noted that the most radical students nearly all came from a comfortable background. Their radicalism largely evaporated in the years ahead. This goes a long way to explaining why such levels of inequality exist in Edinburgh and Scotland.
    I do not regard the middle class today as the ‘rotten core at the heart of a new society’, though I agree that change is necessary and that this would inevitably involve the middle class losing some of their material comfort.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Unusually for us, Florian Albert, I am in a fair degree of agreement with what you have written.

      I am sure ‘normal service’ will be resumed!

      Happy New Year!

    2. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      That’s bourgeois radicalism for you, florian: mercenary and ineffective, however earnest and sincere it might be.

      Vanity of vanities, it’s the early morning mist that evaporates as the sun rises (as Nietzsche might have said) or the effluent that’s burned off by the white-hot heat of revolution (as Lenin did say).

  5. Graeme McCormick says:

    So what are you going to do about geographical apartheid in the state sector where a parent’s ability to buy a house in a certain area determines the free stateschool they go to?

    Random selection by algorithms?

  6. SleepingDog says:

    I found some useful historical background and quantitative analysis in Francis Green’s and David Kynaston’s book Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem (although I am only two chapters in). I had not realised how many professions (like sport and music) were dominated by the privately-schooled (or at least had over-representation by them), with reference to the Sutton Trust’s Leading People report from 2016. Essentially these schools appear to be for creating and maintaining a political class of participators and influencers over an external class of occasional maybe voters and cultural consumers. This is also a somewhat buried theme of the BBC’s rather repetitive four-part series on Celebrity, which ends on political influence (but rather disappointingly fails to include much psychological analysis, profiling or discussion of the majority of people who did not watch the television epics or vote Conservative at the general election).

    I take the article’s point about the silencing of alternate worldviews during conditioning. Some things remain as invisible as a Hogwart’s safeguarding policy.

  7. Jennie Smith says:

    It is instructive to look at Finland. A Nordic country with a population of a similar size to Scotland and with resources which are also similar.
    They understood that an improved education system for all would benefit the whole country. The link that I am providing is interesting because it originates from Finland itself and also is historical and shows the developments in education over a long period.
    No one could argue today that they have not been successful.
    I do not think that the sterile arguments and lazy half truths that we posit about Education do anything other than maintain an unsatisfactory situation.
    We could and should do better. Let’s look outside the box.

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      At the end of the day, freedom is the single most important factor in allowing children to develop as spontaneous, creative individuals. To achieve this end, the role of education needs be to provide environments in which all children, irrespective of their ability or background, can be set free to follow their natural impulses to become the wonderfully dynamic, natural learners we’ve evolved to be. Flourishing can’t be socially engineered, whether in Finland or in Fintry, but only facilitated.

    2. florian albert says:

      ‘It is instructive to look at Finland’

      In the run up to the 2014 referendum, BBC journalist, Allan Little, did this. Specifically, he looked at Finland’s schools with a view to learning lessons for Scotland. The head of Finland’s education system said that Finland’s unique culture made exporting the Finnish model impossible.

      An English teacher, Lucy Crehan, made a similar trip to Finland to see what could be learned to improve schools in England. (It led to a book. ‘Cleverlands’) She was not entirely impressed by what she found.

      Perhaps, we should look instead at the differences between the ‘successful’ schools and the ‘unsuccessful’ state schools on our doorstep.

      1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

        Or at the criteria of ‘success’. By what measure are our unsuccessful schools ‘unsuccessful’ and our successful schools ‘successful’? Is this measure appropriate to the needs of individual learners?

        1. Niemand says:

          This is the most important question and is rarely asked. What measures are being used as well? If it’s league tables for example, they have had a terrible affect on education as has the relegation, or complete elimination of subjects like music in schools. Even in higher education it is now all about value for money and the jobs ‘market’. The marketisation of education and the reduction of it to a kind of cost benefit analysis for the individual and state alike is literally destroying its very foundation.

          1. Dougie Blackwood says:

            These types of discussion are pointless. We all know a good school when we see it, similarly bad schools. The best measure of schools are not in the numbers of A passes but in the improvements that good teachers bring to poor and mediocre students. Obviously not all will be rocket scientists but everybody needs to be able to make a stab at adding up and reading. All to many leave some of our schools without these basic skills and without them they have little chance of any good quality of life. Poor schools concentrate on the best pupils and the rest are abandoned or excluded.

            What to do about it is a different question. In my view the teaching profession has much to answer for; how many bad teachers are asked to try something else? Do they instead move from school to school and end up in the sink school with a poor headmaster where few of the inmates achieve anything worthwhile?

          2. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            Well, no, Dougie; they’re not pointless. They’re discussions about values and what ends our ‘improvements’ should be aiming at. What sort of Scotland we want to build; what education in a future Scotland should be about. Once we’re clear about that, we can start working purposefully to bring it about.

            They’re also necessary because, as a society, we disagree about what a future Scotland should look like and the shape of education within that vision. You might know a good school when you see one, but not everyone will share your view. We need to have these discussions to reach a democratic consensus on what our educational policy will be. Otherwise, we’ll just end up paralysed, squawking at one another on social media, never getting out of the bit.

        2. florian albert says:

          By what measure are our schools ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’ ?

          For most parents, particularly middle class ones, the measure is academic achievement. This is – at upper secondary level – measured in SQA results.
          In 2018, a survey for the Bank of Scotland found that a property being in the catchment area of a ‘successful’ secondary, could add up to £174,000 on its selling price.

          I see little likelihood of this way of thinking about what constitutes ‘success’ in schooling being easily overturned. The best, realistic outcome would be a process of
          leveling up, which would cut into the attainment gap, something which was once Nicola Sturgeon’s main priority.

  8. Squigglypen says:

    Agree totally. I removed my child from a private school and moved her to my own council run school in Clydebank where I taught. The pupils in the private school were receiving private tuition after hours…. that’s why they do so well. And when they leave school there is a support structure for them..even if they don’t do well academically .. a job will be found for them.
    Parents in private schools will never rock the boat At Parents Night I was the only one who asked to see the PE teacher.Usually Maths Science or English staff were popular. At one point PE was removed from the girls curriculum and replaced by sewing because the boys HAD to get rugby. I requested an interview with Headteacher..she laughed..’I’ve been waiting for you ‘..she said…PE lessons were reintroduced immediately.No other parent objected.( the school was breaking the law anyway)
    Everybody wants the best for their child( so I thought when I foolishly enrolled her) Depends of course what you perceive as the ‘best’.
    Susan Calman was in my daughter’s class..recently on tv she complained about the IZAL toilet paper the school used…..oh dear…
    Of course private schooling looks good on a CV AND you’ve got a ‘posh’ accent .My daughter now has two accents..posh and Scottish. Both handy in different spheres.Don’t kid yourself..a posh accent means you’re well’re rich so must be well connected and that bit better than everybody else.
    I heard later that many of the privately educated did not do so well in University as they encountered real life…..

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