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 inquir-
Prep is private, primary is state, and there is a world of difference between them ies 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 stateeducated 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.
guide to independent schools | 3 september 2011 | IN ASOCIATION WITH BREWIN DOLPHIN �
Open Evening: Wednesday 5th October from 4.00pm - 6.00pm
‘Outstanding’ – Prep and Pre-Prep for boys and girls 4–13
Catholic Day and Boarding School for girls aged 11 to 18
• Experience teaching the IB Diploma for 31 years! • Exclusive pre-IB Middle Years Programme • Nurture and support: girls gain excellent results • Places achieved at top Universities worldwide • Scholarships and bursaries available • Multilingualism: up to 9 languages taught • Internationalism: over 46 nationalities, yet one shared mission • All faiths welcome
Please contact: email@example.com www.marymountlondon.com Tel: 020 8949 0571 George Road, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey KT2 7PE.
Leading Independent Day School for Girls aged 11-18
francis holland school Regent’s Park NW1
10.30am 8th October 2011 Call Rebecca Bantoft on 01788 818249 to attend www.biltongrange.co.uk
Leading Independent Day School for Girls aged 4-18
francis holland school Sloane Square SW1
OPEN EVENTS 2011
Senior School 15th, 21st September 27th September 5-7.30pm 14th October 10th, 24th November
Sixth Form 11th October 5.30pm
To book a place please contact the Registrar, Mrs Sandy Bailey.
020 7723 0176 firstname.lastname@example.org www.francisholland.org.uk
Reg. Charity No 312745
OPEN EVENTS 2011
Senior School 14th, 21st, 29th September 11th October 6-8pm 2nd, 9th November Sixth Form 4th October 4.30pm
Junior School 10th October 7th November
To book a place please contact the Registrar, Mrs Jane Ruthven.
020 7730 2971 email@example.com www.francisholland.org.uk
Reg. Charity No 312745
IN ASSOCIATION WITH BREWIN DOLPHIN | 3 september 2011 | guide toindependent schols