What, if anything, makes independent education worth the money? A former long-serving principal of one of Edinburgh’s leading private schools gives his view

Why do families choose to spend enormous sums on educating their children? When household budgets are under unprecedented strain they need to know it is a good investment.

As the head of one of Edinburgh’s independent schools, Cameron Wyllie was often quizzed about it. “I spent a very long part of my career dealing with admissions. And that issue of why people should spend their money on independent education obviously came up all the time,” he says. Wyllie, who retired as principal of George Heriot’s in 2017, adds: “I used to say to them that in my 38 years in independent education in Scotland, I never once spoke to a parent who said that they regretted spending their money that way. “At the end of the day, it is a major and very, very important choice in somebody’s life.”

The next issue is deciding which private school will suit your child. The schools come in all shapes and sizes. The Scottish Council for Independent Schools is a charity that represents 71 independent schools which educate approximately 28,000 children in Scotland. In that list of schools there are small and large ones, single sex, co-educational, day and boarding.

Some offer Scottish exams, others the International Baccalaureate and all have a range of extra-curricular activities as wide as the imagination. So what sets independent schools in Scotland apart? From his years in schools and since retirement through his wide-ranging reflections on education, Wyllie identifies four areas where the private sector is different.

“When I started out in private education there was a certain sense in which the baseline of what was being delivered was the same in the state sector and in the private sector,” he says. “I often make an analogy with private hospitals. The difference is that the money is paying for a nice private room, better food and operation done immediately. But it’s essentially the same operation.

“When I started at Stewart’s Melville I was delivering courses which were very similar to courses being offered in the state sector. Since the advent of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), and the private sector’s more or less rejection of CfE, that is no longer true. “Independent schools in Scotland offer the Scottish curriculum in a very different way to state schools with an emphasis much more on the academic side of it.

“Basically, my argument always was that private schools deliver the targets of Curriculum for Excellence, but they do so outwith the classroom.” Which takes us to Wyllie’s second point – extracurricular activities. “In 1983, there was a huge teacher strike in Scotland and extracurricular activities were a casualty in state schools and broadly speaking, never recovered.

Whereas they are absolutely part of the core of the independent school with sports, music, drama and debating, for example.” He adds: “These are part of the lifeblood of the school and these are the central reason why people in independent schools are effective contributors and responsible citizens and can take part in teams and things like that, it’s what makes them confident people.”

For his final points, Wyllie turns to discipline and pastoral care. “They are two sides of the same coin really,” he explains “We know that in some – not in all – state schools, there are issues to do with behaviour and the response to bad behaviour generally. “In independent schools the people looking after children have the luxury of being able to look after them all.

What I mean is that if you’re a nice child and you sit at the back of the class, you may well be appreciated in a state school, but those in charge of pastoral care are basically firefighting. They are dealing with things in a very reactive way. “In independent schools, the pastoral care staff have a great deal more time, and the capacity therefore, to make sure that everyone who’s under their care is taken notice of.

“And the other side of that is discipline and that’s becoming a huge issue in state schools. “Basically, independent schools have the luxury of being able to deal with bad behaviour and bullying in a way that state schools simply don’t do any more.

“The concept of disciplining children, if they misbehave, is still credible in independent schools in a way that it’s not in state schools. “So, that means that independent schools across the piece provide a safe environment for young people to learn.” Wyllie adds that very high levels of professional pastoral care, and the discipline – regulation, rules and the teaching of self-discipline – mean the focus of school time can be on learning.

“And when we were at school we would have regarded that as the purpose of education, that preparation, whether it’s academic or vocational, for future life.” The elephant on the playing field, so to speak, is what a new government will do after the general election.

Labour might have backed down from plans to strip independent schools of their charitable status, but it still intends to impose 20 per cent VAT on private schools and end business rates relief in England. In Scotland the rules for charitable status were tightened more than a decade ago with schools having to meet the. ‘public benefit test’ set by the charity regulator OSCR.

Pupils are supported with fee assistance. In 2022, 24.2 per cent of pupils received some form of financial support – usually means-tested bursaries – from their school, with 3.2 per cent of senior students having their places fully funded by the school. Schools in Scotland are also charged for non-domestic rates on their properties.

The removal of charitable rates relief for independent schools, which was delayed during the pandemic, was finally imposed in April 2022. Wyllie can see where Labour is coming from. “I don’t immediately think it is logically obvious why all private schools should be charities. I can see exactly the argument that says that some private schools should not be charities.”

He adds: “The bottom line is that the OSCR test was a good thing. It was a perfectly reasonable thing to say to private schools that you have to examine your charitable status.” Wyllie takes George Heriot’s as “a brilliant example of a school, which was always a charity, was set up as a charity, and maintains that charitability to this day”.

He says that when OSCR asked for schools to do the charity test Heriot’s volunteered at an early stage. “We knew perfectly well that we would pass because of the Heriot’s Foundation,” he explains. When George Heriot left a bequest to found a school for orphaned boys in 1624, he set in place a foundation to fund the education of children who had lost a parent.

Since the mid 17th century, more than 5,500 pupils who fit the qualifying financial and geographical criteria have received a fully-funded education at the school. With his experience does Wyllie have an alternative way forward? “In an ideal world, private schools would be in a position whereby their bursarial give was sufficient that basically any child could apply to an independent school without money being the reason that they can’t get in.

“My personal view is that if the Labour Party wanted to do something much more useful about education and about independent education, instead of putting VAT on school fees, which will inevitably make schools more elitist, they should be saying, we’re going to allow private schools to remain as charities, but they must up the amount of money that goes into bursaries to 20 per cent – or 25 per cent – of their income.

“Now, some schools wouldn’t be able to do that. But that would be the way forward I think, rather than simply adding VAT to school fees, which is punitive.” Wyllie is enough of a realist to point to the challenges the independent sector faces.

“The difficulty is that there is a great deal of prejudice about independent education. “A lot of that prejudice is based around schools in the south of England, which are nothing like most of the independent schools in Scotland,” he says.

“If you say ‘independent schools’ or ‘private education’ to people, they think of Eton and Harrow, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, and they think ‘I want nothing to do with that’. To be honest, I don’t really want anything to do with it either.

“But I do want there to be a great deal of choice and variety in our education offer. And I think it’s perfectly reasonable that if people want to spend their hardearned money on their child’s education, then that is a reasonable thing for them to do.”


As a headmaster, Cameron Wyllie says he found it astonishing that half the applicants didn’t go into the school before they went to sit the entrance exam. His advice to prospective pupils and their families:

“Definitely visit the school – not just for an open day, but also for a private visit. Each school has a different personality. There are pros and cons about about every school. “I wouldn’t place too much stock in just looking at a website unless that’s the only way you can do it, because you are abroad, for example.

“So I’d be going into open mornings, I’d be going for private visits and talking to staff. I’d be getting as much information as I possibly can. And particularly I’d be asking current parents at that school, what the pros and cons are, as they see it.”


Wyllie relates the tale of a child asked by a headmaster after a tour of another Edinburgh school: “Do you think you’d like to come to study with us?”. The child replied: “Well, you’ve been so nice, sir, but at the end of the day, no: I think it’s Heriot’s because it’s got such a great view of the castle.” The lesson here is that it was something the child was going to live with for seven or 13 years. “These little things make a great deal of difference.” He adds: “Really talk to your child, regardless of their age. Ask what it is that they like about the various schools that you visit.”


“I would also be visiting the local comprehensive so I’d have all options in mind when I was approaching my child’s education,” says Wyllie.


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