When my eldest child was four and I thought she might not get in to the good local primary school in Shepherd’s Bush, I applied for a place for her at the Harrodian. It’s an all-through independent school in Barnes surrounded by acres of freshly mown grass — almost like a stately home. An attractive school, to be sure, and popular with west London yummy mummies, but I was still a little taken aback to be asked for a ‘deposit’. When it was explained that I’d have to fork this out whether Sasha was offered a place or not, I was horrified. Wouldn’t a better name for it be a ‘fee’?
I have subsequently discovered that this is a common practice among independent schools, although some offer to deduct it from the first term’s fees if your child gets in, so in that respect it is a deposit. The rationale is that processing an application involves some administration on the school’s part, but I remember thinking at the time that the cost to the Harrodian of entering Sasha’s name on an Excel spreadsheet and then ‘interviewing’ her — which involved the headmaster looking on while she played with Lego for five minutes — couldn’t possibly justify the amount they were charging.
The nearest independent school to my house in Acton charges each applicant £100, a fee that supposedly covers the cost of marking the entrance exam. Quite a nice little earner, given that the school has more than 2,000 applicants a year. At the secondary free school I helped set up around the corner, you could hire eight newly qualified teachers for that kind of money. It’s particularly scandalous when you factor in that the entrance exam benefits the school, not the applicants. After all, the reason it makes children sit an entrance exam is so that it can select the most able and maintain its reputation for academic excellence.
If that isn’t shocking enough, I heard something truly hair-raising from a friend who’d applied to a prestigious academic school in Greenwich this year. To hedge against the possibility of his 11-year-old son being rejected, he also applied to another school with more of an arts focus — his ‘banker’. True, that involved paying two ‘deposits’, but he was happy to do that to avoid the risk of his son not getting in anywhere.
The academic school was first out of the traps with an offer, but his son had by that time developed a strong preference for the arts school — he’s keen on drama, apparently — so my friend decided to wait to see if the other school made an offer before responding. Time was on his side, or so he thought, because the academic school gave him four weeks to make up his mind.
Turned out, the other school didn’t make an offer — it wasn’t the banker he’d imagined, but even more over-subscribed than the academic school. So he persuaded his son the hot house wasn’t that bad and got in touch to accept the offer. Imagine his horror, therefore, when he was told that the offer had ‘expired’. He protested that there were still two weeks left to go before the deadline, but the school drew his attention to some small print in the original letter in which it reserved the right to withdraw the offer if all the places were filled before the deadline.
So he ended up losing both ‘deposits’ and his son still hasn’t got a place anywhere. When he complained about this to some other parents, he learned that the last-minute withdrawal of an offer before the deadline has expired is so commonplace among leading independent schools it has a name: it’s called an ‘exploding offer’.
Thankfully, Sasha did get a place at the local primary school and has remained in the state system ever since, as have my three sons, so I have avoided being fleeced by these cut-throats. To be fair, when I got back in touch with the headmaster of the Harrodian to tell him Sasha wouldn’t be taking up her place and asked him if he could refund my ‘deposit’, he agreed. So, really, I’ve got nothing to complain about.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to convince my friend to apply to the Charter School East Dulwich, a new free school that has an excellent reputation. His son might not get in, of course, but at least he won’t have to pony up £100 for the privilege of being rejected.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator and head of the New Schools Network.