I should have known the London prep school scene was a racket from the way parents talk about it. They sound mad. ‘You’re too late!’ I was told by one mother, when my Little Face (not his real name) was nine months old, as if we had, by a whisker, missed the lifeboats at the Titanic. ‘What schools are you considering?’ asked a stranger in the playground. I muttered some names and she, a drab suburban Maleficent, cursed me. ‘You’ll be lucky,’ she smiled, as I dreamed of laying a peculiarly north London curse of my own: ‘May your child fail its A-levels.’
Even so, I put Little Face on waiting lists for prep schools, and write cheques. I do not have a complex defence for this. It is, for a leftist, hypocrisy. And because the marketing literature of these schools is skilled, I am grateful for the opportunity to write cheques and appear on waiting lists, although I am never sure, with sibling policies and old-boy policies and religious devotion policies, exactly what I am waiting for. The seduction of these schools is entirely dependent on the mirage that you will procure for your child something — ideally everything — that is denied to others. It is an arms race.
Then the first rejection comes. Little Face is not invited to interview for nursery at a famous London school, for reasons that are mysterious. (Little Face is very handsome and charismatic. He looks at The Spectator. He can say ‘I love trucks!’) He is a failure at two and a quarter, and this failure seems arbitrary, a guillotine.
Then: the first tour. Perhaps I am expecting my own first prep school, which emphasised ballet, flower-arranging and the correct use of napkin rings. They thought I was weird because I ate books, and I thought they were mad because they wanted me to dance round gardens en pointe while holding a napkin ring. So I cried and my mother, whose political trajectory began at Leon Trotsky and has now reached Boris Johnson, sent me to a proper prep school. There were boys, Latin lessons, a spaniel called Tarquin who lived in the kitchen and a staff who, in retrospect, were functionally alcoholic.
This one is a maze near Regents Park, and ugly; it smells of bleach. The headmaster is professionally charismatic; a showman. He tells the gathered parents — and a solitary nanny promoted to school inspector — about the seven-plus examination, with which small children are fed into fairy-tale schools: Westminster Under School; Colet Court; University College School. (Not UCS for Little Face. I once saw a 4ft-high UCS boy try to buy a lease on a Starbucks.) He talks about Mandarin and chess and violins and student-teacher ratios. He has — and this is a disease that only prep school heads have — a form of Tourette’s syndrome that makes you say ‘Westminster’ all the time. This is the dream that makes north London parents’ eyelids flicker in the dawn. St Paul’s in Hammersmith is south of the river.
Hear this prayer, and you will forget that the best state schools now outperform the best private schools, as established by the editor of The Spectator when praising Tony Blair’s reforms. The children are sallow and sad, as if something essential — their childhood? — has been hollowed out. They are compliant. In A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More taunted Richard Rich for his immorality with the words: ‘For Wales?’ To which I would add: ‘For Westminster? You stole a child’s joy for Westminster? What is wrong with you?’ At prep school tours, parents regress. Their body language is silky and defensive. Still, one mother with a baby in her arms, as if ready to lead a breakout in a concentration camp, mentions ‘stress’.
‘We protect the children from the stress,’ lies the headmaster, as 15 grey little faces with shadowed eyes look at us. Outside the cherry trees are budding — but how would they know? I leave determined that Little Face would attend no such zombie school; I will move to Muswell Hill, send him to a state primary school, and atrophy. But I keep going on the tours, from fascinated horror. At the most recent one the headmaster says, ‘The children speak to the catering staff with the same respect with which they would address me.’ I am not sure if this is true. My evidence is that under a sign that says ‘Great Britons’, a child has endorsed David Cameron with the words: ‘I love his style and his way of ruling Britain.’
Then we watch an empathy class; when, asks a teacher, is it not OK to bully other children? I love the concept of competitive empathy. ‘Sir, I aced empathy! (That loser didn’t.)’ When I hear they have studied Lord of the Flies, the definitive elegy to lost innocence, I have to stuff my fist in my mouth.
No child is a failure in Year 4, says the headmaster. If they are not scholarship — or Westminster! — candidates, the school perseveres. With they a bit of luck, they will not know they are failures until they have flunked their Common Entrance at 13, or passed it, but only to go to a lesser school — not Westminster! (For this reason, he emphasises, they list the leavers’ destination schools alphabetically, so Westminster — Westminster! — is not at the top.) Some schools, he adds beadily, are not like this. They siphon off the scholarship boys early and let the rest get trampled by cows.
Then we meet children: glossy, self-assured mini-adults who, when prompted, give presentations in praise of their school. They may grow into the worst of men. I do not know. They are personable (the ‘style’) and remote. In truth, I fear them. Is it possible that north Londoners have created a form of self-immolation to take advantage of the many psychotherapists about? Are they paranoid that without a spurious sense of superiority, their child will fail on their own tiny terms? Because these are not, to me, children. They are a miniature executive class, powered by parental status panic, and for what? To create a superman, you must break a child. It is the only way.