The independent advantage starts early – frighteningly early, if you’re a parent, says Fraser Nelson
Fifty per cent of children are of below-average intelligence, but try telling that obvious fact to their parents. Humans are programmed to find their offspring mesmerisingly delightful, and to consider them strikingly quick learners and budding geniuses. I know I do. But like many parents, I promised myself I would not let it drive me to delusional paranoia or make me project on the poor lad my own ambitions. Certainly, when it came to primary school, I was going to relax. How much can they learn at that age, anyway?
My mum and sister, both professional primary teachers, had warned me not to succumb to what they saw as the peculiarly English, middle-class phenomenon of worrying about primary schooling. I went to my local state primary, as did everyone I know. I only found about the social distinctions in early education a few years ago, when I asked George Osborne if it was true he went to primary school with Nathaniel Rothschild. ‘Yes, but I don’t think either of us would call it a primary,’ he laughed. I smiled, politely — I was baffled. That was two years ago, and I had no idea what he was talking about. By God, I do now.
Prep is private, primary is state, and there is a world of difference between them. Even a year ago, I would not have believed such a divide among children so young was possible. But as I began to survey primary schools for my eldest, the full horror dawned. The English are right to worry. There is striking segregation, and it starts horribly young. The private ‘prep’ schools ask boys to wear uniforms, behave in a certain way and charge the earth for a traditional school ethos which my father’s generation were given free.
As for the state schools, their quality varies from brilliant to shocking. But even the best ones struggle to match those in the private sector and are anyway hopelessly oversubscribed. My wife and I visited a brilliant one. We were shown around with a bunch of other parents by the school headmistress through facilities which looked world-class. We were all dazzled: lush playing grounds, one-to-one tuition breakup groups, the lot. But eventually it became clear we were almost all being shown around under false pretences. At the end, the guide left us and asked a colleague to provide the map of the catchment area. Presumably she left because this was the stage when parents grew violent.
The catchment area map looked, at first glance, like the projected boundaries of a perimeter fence. Unless you lived next door, there was no chance. Further inquiries led me to work out how some parents get around this: you fake a divorce, then rent a flat within the catchment area claiming that you have custody of the child — all the while leading a happy family life a mile away. If you’re really serious, the family could cram into the tiny flat in case the council investigates you. Once one child is accepted, the siblings are enrolled automatically. You leave the flat, and it’s let by another parent playing the same scam. The school realises this, seeing similar addresses pop up time and time again. But rules are rules.
We had a greater chance of getting into my closest state school. But that’s because it’s not much good. A friend has his child there, and is desperate to get the eight-year-old lad out. He applied to the local fee-paying school, but was told his child had already fallen too far behind. All the extra tuition in the world would not bring him up to speed. Indeed, he told me, London tutors refuse to coach state-educated nine-year-olds in preparation for the Common Entrance exam because they will have already fallen too far behind. Four years in a state primary, and an elite English secondary is not an option.
My friend’s advice was clear, and delivered with urgency. ‘It’s too late for us. But not for you. The school doesn’t test four-year-olds, so you can get him in. Do it.’ So my wife and I trotted off to the fee-paying school, and opened the door into another world. It had panelled walls, and placards with the names of former pupils together with lists of the schools to which they had won scholarships: Eton, St Paul’s, Winchester, Rugby and so on. The headmistress didn’t show us around: the pupils did, taking us on individual tours: ‘The children will also tell you which school they chose, and why,’ chirped the headmistress as she packed us off.
Oh yes. Put your child in our school, and he’ll get to take his pick of England’s elite secondaries. This was the clear message. The boys who showed us around were keenly intelligent, well-read, and able to point out the school’s flaws as well as its attributes. One explained that the school had bought new playing fields, because it is now so rich. Supply and demand, he said. The government won’t grant planning permission to new private schools, so when demand surges (as it is doing now) it just increases demand for the handful of existing ones. The fees shoot up.
I was sold. Such a brilliant explanation of the hideous malfunction in the English education market — from a 12-year-old lad — was just what I was after. He was charming and, like all privately educated London boys, taught to blend in to the rest of society. My wife asked if he mixes much with boys from the good state school (they are half a mile away). No, he says, they play games against the other private school kids. Charming, smart, kind — but socially segregated. I wandered home, struck by two competing instincts. I was in awe of this wonderful school, which I could afford if I made a few sacrifices, but appalled that such educational apartheid could exist for children at such a young age.
And here lies the conundrum. You may hate the thought of private primary school (sorry, George, prep school) — but this is a child, not a social experiment. You may deplore the way that children are divided at this stage, but which side of the divide do you wish your child to be on? Many Russians would kill to send their child to such a school. Some probably do. Private schooling is one of the few things that Britain does better than anywhere else in the world. The task facing David Cameron — and his Chancellor — is to make sure state primaries catch up.