In recent years I’ve started putting the verb ‘to get in’ (when it refers to the action of being offered a place at a sought-after school) into capital letters: ‘To Get In’. It seems to merit capitals, so much has it become the defining verb of one’s child’s success and therefore future happiness, as perceived by the desperate parent. ‘He Got In to Eton.’ ‘She Got In to Latymer.’ Or (whispered only to one’s most trusted friends), ‘He didn’t Get In to St Paul’s.’
I suppose it’s quite amusing that being able to Get your child In to the private school of your dreams is the one prized item that the fee-paying middle classes cannot simply buy. The Getting In system is a meritocracy. Fee-payers are up against bursary-receivers: private schools these days are proud of their bursary schemes, wishing to be seen to be socially inclusive. Good for them; but this keeps ever-growing numbers of paying parents awake at night for decades in an agony of anxiety about their children’s prospects in what the director of admissions at St Paul’s calls ‘the white-hot market’. It keeps tutorial firms and the publishers of the Bond Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning Assessment Papers in business. Because, of course, the schools of our dreams are vastly oversubscribed — especially the ones in London and the south-east.
When demand outstrips supply, both parties resort to playing games. Parents’ weapons are (a) to have the child heavily tutored, (b) to apply for six or seven schools and (c) to pay acceptance deposits for more than one. The schools’ weapons are (a) to devise exams which you can’t prepare for and which can tell whether a child has been overtutored and (b) to demand a dauntingly large deposit on acceptance of a conditional place. The parents’ agonised wait for the letter of acceptance or rejection is followed by the schools’ agonised wait for acceptance or rejection of the offer.
If you would like to know exactly how oversubscribed the top schools in London and the south-east are, read on. The statistics might make your nights even worse; but the consolation is that if there is only a one-in-eight chance that your child will Get In, it will not be a disgrace if he or she doesn’t. You can just blame the absurd mismatch of demand and supply. Apparently, no child has ever been found roaming the streets in mid-September with no school to go to, though this always seems an all-too-likely outcome to the sleepless mother, who foresees across-the-board rejection. What parents dread most is the ‘thin envelope’ landing on the mat. A thin envelope means: ‘We are very sorry to have to give you the disappointing news that we are unable to offer N a place. We wish him the best of luck in his future schooling.’ (‘No, you don’t,’ thinks the fainting reader.) The coveted thick envelope contains a form for you to fill in and send back with the four-figure deposit cheque.
Many top boys’ public schools have for years required boys to sit a ‘pre-test’ in Year 6 — a process whereby 11-year-old boys are offered places for Year 9, on condition that they get a good enough mark in Common Entrance. But the numbers of applicants for Westminster and St Paul’s have grown so much that these schools now require boys to sit a pre-pre-test to see whether the applicants are even allowed to sit the pre-test (or, at St Paul’s, have a pre-test interview). This test, the ISEB Common Pre-Test, is done at the prep schools, on computers.
John Curtis, the registrar of Westminster, explained, ‘We have 95 places for non-Westminster Under School boys; 500 register for the process. When I started 14 years ago it used to be 300. Of the 500 who sit the ISEB pre-test, 250 are invited to go on to the next stage.’ Andy Mayfield, director of admissions at St Paul’s School for boys, said, ‘About 600 apply for 90 places. When we saw the numbers jump from 400 to 600 recently, we decided we just couldn’t interview all those children. We needed to find some way of reducing the numbers down to 350.’
That’s what the ISEB test does. It’s a way of bidding an instant, polite goodbye to 250. The lucky survivors then go on to the next stage: at Westminster, a day of written tests plus a half-hour interview; at St Paul’s, an interview laced with academic questions. The numbers show that you now have a one-in-three chance at Westminster and a one-in-four chance at St Paul’s.
I put it to Andy Mayfield that this system gives no chance to life’s late developers. He disagreed. ‘We have a reserve list. We offer a number of places on that list, and you’d be surprised how in this market the reserve list can become very short, as parents decide to take their sons off it and go to a school that is perhaps geographically closer.’
Adding to the London madness is the fact that many of the best senior day schools have become 11+ schools, while many of the best boys’ prep schools are 13+ ones. If you dream about your son progressing seamlessly at 13+ to the excellent Latymer Upper down the road, forget it. ‘Last time we had a 13+ entry exam,’ said the registrar Catriona Sutherland-Hawes, ‘we had 68 applying for just eight places. So we’ve decided to drop the formal 13+ entry. For our 11+ this year, we had 1,100 candidates sitting for 170 places. That has grown from 650 candidates in 2007.’ Latymer has given up setting verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests because children were being overtutored for these. ‘So now it’s just English and maths. Children are dropped off and collected in staggered slots on exam day, so no one sees how many other candidates there are, and there are no more that 24 candidates in a room.’
I happened to speak to Sutherland-Hawes on the very day Latymer were to decide to whom they offered places. ‘We’ll sit down at 2 p.m. and we probably won’t finish the meeting till nine. I’ll always say a short prayer for guidance before the meeting.’ The school does not have a siblings policy. ‘I disappoint as many siblings as I make happy. But I do believe there’s the right place for everyone.’
At Alleyn’s in Dulwich this year, more than 100 candidates sat the 13+ exam for just 11 places. ‘It’s a very difficult entry,’ admits Antony Faccinello, the senior deputy head. ‘At 11+, the ratio is more like five or six to one. Whoever applies is allowed to sit the exam: we don’t put a cap on numbers.’
Emanuel School in Battersea has an extra form in Year 9, providing 20 to 25 new places at 13+, and applicants are flocking there. ‘We limit the number of applications we accept at 11+ to 600,’ explained the headmaster, Mark Hanley-Browne. ‘We interview every child on the list: that is why we have to limit the length, because this is so staff-intensive: 20 minutes per child, and individual interviews.Demand has increased hugely over the past few years… the date in the year when we hit 600 registrations is getting earlier and earlier. One of the reasons is that a lot of students from London used to go to boarding schools, but given the high cost, many parents are switching their attention to London day schools.’
If it’s boarding you are looking for, try Eton’s computerised pre-test, which takes place in Year 6: boys come to the school in batches of 16 for the test and a short interview. There are a great many testing days, as Bob Stevenson, the lower master and designer of this test, explained. ‘We have 1,300 applying for 250 places. The test is a cognitive test, designed to give an indication of a boy’s underlying aptitude. It’s different from other tests, so boys can’t practise for it: there are no questions anywhere else that would resemble the test’s questions.’
How do they whittle the numbers down? ‘It would be easy,’ said Stevenson, ‘simply to take the top 250 in the test, but we don’t. We interview every boy, to find out whether what the prep-school or primary school have told us about them is accurate. We’re looking for a spark in lots of ways. We’re not just looking for the brightest boys. We go through each candidate and rank them, comparing five rankings. It’s the most difficult thing we have to do, as there are huge numbers of boys who would fulfil the criteria. But sometimes we have to say no. If there were another couple of Etons, it would be OK.’
Another couple of Etons: exactly. That’s just what we need; plus another couple of St Paul’s, Westminsters, Alleyn’s, Emanuels and Latymers. One enterprising school, Wetherby Prep, has responded to this dire need: Wetherby (which already has highly oversubscribed boys’ pre-prep and prep schools) is opening a new senior school for boys in Marylebone in September. On entrance exam day in November there was a long queue at the door. ‘We had about 250 applying for 90 places,’ said Nick Baker, the headmaster of Wetherby Prep, who is also going to be headmaster of the new senior school. He intends to make it ‘a centre of excellence’ and is looking for normally bright boys, not only hyper-bright ones. ‘The value of a school,’ he says, ‘is what you do with the middle and bottom third.’ Quite.
Meanwhile, on doormats across the country, envelopes have landed on mats. The vast majority (the thin ones) fluttered quietly downwards.