Toby Young Toby Young

Cash for questions

How charging for entrance exams has become a nice little earner, reports Toby Young

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.

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