Superintendents Tour Private Schools in Scotland

By AASA The School Superintendents Association

After a tour of private schools, AASA superintendent determines that, above all other resources, teaching quality is the most important factor in student achievement

Note: AASA, the School Superintendents Association, led a delegation to visit Scotland's public and private schools last month to learn about the country's education system and find good practices that could be replicated in the United States. The blogs below are a summary of one superintendent's experience. Learn more at

Just as in the U.S., there are both government sponsored and private school options available in Scotland. After visiting government funded schools, we had an invitation to tour some private institutions.

The Mary Erskine School (for girls) and Stewart’s Melville College (for boys) are schools within the Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools (ESMS) private system. These schools are single sex from ages 12-18. The schools offer day school, week boarding or full-time boarding. Tuition for the day school is approximately $14,000 and full-time tuition and boarding fees are approximately $26,000. Other services are available for additional fees, including coach transportation to the school and travel experiences.

The Mary Erskine School and Stewart Melville College started as schools for children of merchants who could not afford an education otherwise. The schools have been in existence since 1694. Today, although the schools are non-profit, they rely primarily on tuition for all operating costs.

Students must apply for entrance to the schools and take an exam as part of the admission process. There are some scholarships available, but that only reflects 5 percent of the school population.

The comparison between private and public schools in Scotland is similar to what can be made between the two systems in the U.S. One example is the demographics in those schools. Although scholarships are available to the private Scottish schools, it is evident that the majority of students come from higher income families. To meet the interests of students, the EMSM schools provided more than 70 after-school clubs and co-curricular activities. Government schools attempt to offer after school options but funding for these programs is an issue and fee-based programs in government sponsored schools can create a hardship for families.

Filling academic gaps is a common goal shared by the private and government schools in Scotland and in the U.S., but there are some differences in the resources available to accomplish that. Ensuring that the needs of the whole child are met is another common area of focus in both school systems. Once again, however, there is a difference in tools available in government funded versus private schools.

When all is said and done, the place we call school may look different for children attending private vs. government-run schools and the resources available do differ. However, making certain students have their needs met, and any academic, physical, social or emotional gaps are addressed, are goals shared by all educators in these institutions of learning.

The bottom line is, we must make certain there is equity in our educational systems and each and every child has an opportunity for a quality education—on both sides of the ocean.

The Importance of College and Career Readiness

During our visit to the Mary Erskine School, we had an opportunity to speak with students directly. Our tour guides for the visit were two young women in their last year at the school. One of the girls told us she planned to go to the university for civil engineering and the other planned on becoming an attorney.

The students spoke of their love of the “maths” and sciences, as well as language. Although the students did not speak about 21st century skills or the 4 Cs, the projects and work that lined the halls and were on display in classrooms were evidence that creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration were woven into learning at this school. Even in a school that is a more traditional model, going beyond academics and ensuring students obtain the knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary in this new era of work and life are being addressed.

The young ladies spoke of being encouraged to identify their interests, and of being counseled and supported as they explored various pathways. Courses in the U.S. that may be classified as career and technical classes, including culinary arts, technical design and military training, are offered in this all girls’ school. Additionally, our guides shared that they are assisted in finding internships where they can get experience in a work environment in an area of their choice.

It was interesting that in the Mary Erskine School, the primary tool observed for classroom instruction was paper and pencils. However, the students shared they can obtain permission to use their own devices. There were, however, computer labs, computers in the library and technology in some of the classrooms that focused on technical courses.

The world of work and life is changing and regardless of a school describing itself as traditional or innovative, private or public, single sex or co-ed, located in the U.S. or Scotland, preparing students with the knowledge, skills and dispositions to take on the challenges and opportunities of the new era of work and life is not an option—it is a mandate.

A visit to Stewart’s Melville College in Edinburgh allowed us to get a close look at education at this private school for students (boys) ages 12-17. The school grounds were beautiful and the building radiated tradition.

The boys were smartly dressed in school uniforms that distinguished their rank or grade level at the school. The library had old stained glass windows and the woodwork was incredible. At the same time, we saw modern physical education facilities including a competition-sized pool.

This mix of very traditional and more current was also reflected in the instruction we saw in classrooms. Our tour guides were two young gentlemen who were in their final year at the school. They wanted to show us everything this private school represented and offered.

One of our first stops was in a language arts classroom where the teacher was teaching a math lesson because he felt strongly this was an area where students were not as well prepared as they should be. He expressed his view that students performed well on the required tests because the test was too easy. In that classroom we observed the teacher sitting at his desk and students assigned problems to solve. Some students were engaged and others appeared disengaged.

As we moved to another room where history was taught, our student tour guides became animated and shared how the teachers in this department used innovative teaching techniques, including taking on the persona of a historical figure, dressing as that person and surprising students with their presence in the classroom. The students spoke of never forgetting those lessons.

We all know that teachers are the first and most important connection between the student and learning. The physical environment and the resources available do impact learning. However, the human resource we call teacher is the key.

In the Stewart’s Melville College and in the ESMS private school system that this school belongs to, teachers are paid approximately 10 percent more than in the government-funded schools. That is certainly an advantage. However, as observed in some schools, money alone cannot guarantee the best instruction. Once again, we find location or a school’s category does not seem to matter when we are speaking about the fundamentals that drive quality education and one of those most critical components is a highly skilled and caring teacher.

By Gail Pletnick, superintendent of the Dysart Unified School District in Surprise, Ariz., and the 2017-18 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. 

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.


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Castle-like school in Scotland