Rich kids have rights too...

Francis Gilbert's picture
 14
Anthony Seldon looked a little uneasily at me. It was the first time I’ve actually seen him lose a degree of his composure.

To be fair, I had been a little rude. I was in the headmaster’s lodge at Wellington College and drinking a little glass of champagne, kindly provided by the Sunday Times Festival, when Anthony said hello in a friendly fashion.

Embolded a little by the champagne, I said: “But Anthony, you’ve never really responded to my question that I posed at last year’s festival, how can claim to have children's happiness at the heart of your school when you insist upon draconian entrance tests for your school?”

I do know a great many people “on the right” who would have immediately become shirty, but not Anthony, who is, what anyone might think of him, always a gentleman. He dutifully answered my question, saying that Wellington was massively over-subscribed and that they did need a way of selecting pupils. I said he could select the pupils’ by lottery. Anthony looked a tiny bit bewildered by the thought of a lottery and muttered some stuff about children needing to realise that the “real” world of jobs was all about selection.

“Yes, but Anthony, you’re leaving these children, as young as eleven, feeling like they’re failures because they haven’t got into your school. It has a massive psychological impact upon them. It deeply affects their happiness.”

Anthony promised to discuss the point at a later date. He is vulnerable on the issue because not only does he claim to have children's happiness at the heart of his school, but also he's been very critical of state schools for being exam factories. Have you seen how many exams there are for Common Entrance?

Think of the signal that it would send, if Seldon did select pupils by lottery? Toby Young banged on during his speech about how wonderful private schools are, but he never mentioned how selective they are, or how they boot out any pupils that don’t look like they’re going to make the grade.

Of course, Seldon will never select by lottery -- it would ruin the school's "outstanding" results.
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Keith Turvey's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 18:37

Can't ever resist a blog about lotteries. But this does raise the question:

Is a lottery really any kinder?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 18:44

You could argue that a child wouldn't feel a failure if they lost by lottery; they wouldn't feel that they're personally to blame. The problem with academic tests is that the children who fail feel utterly responsible -- and totally demoralised as a result. Many never forget it for the rest of their lives. Rich kids have rights too! We shouldn't be psychologically abusing them in this way.

Keith Turvey's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 21:52

I'm really not so sure about that Francis. Two children competing for a place on academic merit. Both have achieved the same level in whatever entrance test has been devised and then it's down to the flip of a coin who gets in. Whilst I agree there's a certain distancing of personal responsibility it's still a significant injustice that is likely to have a significant affect on the child who doesn't get the place.

It's an irrelevant red herring anyway as at the end of the day it's still a process of exclusion. It's a mechanism that's blind to social class, race, merit or whatever so it can do nothing to significantly redress the inequities or social segregation that already exists in the system of state and private schooling.

Nigel Ford's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 22:08

I thought entry to Wellington, like many public schools was 13 (not 11), after they take the Common Entrance.

For those pupils who don't make the grade (and it would be interesting to know how they deselect the pupils if the majority have passed the CE, does the school just take the highest achievers?) I'm sure there are plenty of other public schools waiting to take the parents' money. I wouldn't have thought there was any long term psychological damage for those pupils who didn't make their first choice school.

One of Jeffrey Archer's many deceptions was that he liked people to think he attended Wellington College rather than his alma mater, the less illustrious Wellington School in Somerset.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 09:08

I think there's entry at 11 and 13. I have personal knowledge of children quite traumatised by failing to get into the perceived "top" schools like Wellington, and left to go to the "duffers'" schools such as Kings Canterbury. This is the discourse that goes on amongst parents. It's very upsetting for these children.

O. Spencer's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 18:45

Looking at the King's Canterbury website, Francis, one hardly leaves with the impression that it's a 'duffers' school. Perhaps I'm not middle class enough to know the subtleties of such things. Not only were 99% of GCSEs A*-C but 79.5% were A*-A. At A Level 56% of the year got at least 1 A*. I'm sure parents who stump up the 7k-9k per term do so in the knowledge that it's not a 'duffers' school and furthermore that if kids go there who didn't get into Wellington or other places they can't be carrying around too much 'long term psychological damage' as Nigel Ford states above.

I'd agree that it's far better to have these exams at 13 rather than 11.

If you're trying to say, Francis, that private schools have a negative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of a child, then I'd suggest there are many examples of similar things going on in comprehensive schools.

Kids are forced to take many exams nowadays, formal and informal. Setting as used in state schools could be accused of demoralising kids and inflicting long term psychological damage. Why? Those in the second sets and below will *never* be entered for the Higher tier papers - thus they will never have the possibility to be the best. The best they can ever hope for is second best 'B' at intermediate tier, 'C' at foundation. Perhaps in a more competitive environment (seeing other kids in the class getting Bs and As) they might be stretched and told that if they work harder and spend time at home studying they have a chance of success. Success is one of the biggest motivators known to mankind.

It must also be pretty awful for kids to be 'relegated' to the lower sets - although this is dressed up as 'better for their individual needs'.

There are plenty of debates to be had as to whether that kind of system is inflicting damage on children. Will they always feel second-class, in further education or the workplace? Will they think that further and higher education isn't for them - because they were forced into the 'thicko' exams.

What about the 'psychological damage' inflicted on those forced into 'mixed ability' classes in some kind of weird belief that their education needs to be subordinated so that a more disruptive, often less-able child *might* pay attention to your example. Schools can try and make up for the deficiencies of disadvantaged kids through teaching, but I think it crosses a line when brighter kids are used as some kind of instrument to aid the learning of less-bright children. Of course, within any set there is a range of attainment, but in mixed ability classes this is amplified to an almost ludicrous extent.

Obviously I feel nothing but sympathy for kids like the ones you know Francis who are traumatised by that particular experience. We can only hope there aren't many.

The great problem with selection by postcode, the great travesty of our times, is that while many people acknowledge that most often, the best schools are in the best areas; children and parents don't acknowledge that money= good school because it's not as immediate as 'failing' an entrance exam.

I'm speaking as someone who was 'fortunate' in the sense that my parents moved out of the inner-city when they started a family. This was to raise their kids in a quieter, nicer environment and be in the catchment area for the best schools. The majority of the children living in the inner-city didn't have that luxury. But did they think - ''oh so-and-so in the suburbs is having a better education than me because his parents got out of here and now live near the best schools?'' Probably not.

In reality it's every bit as 'unfair' as selection by ability may be. But because it's less overt it is somehow seen as less of a problem, and certainly viewed as less widespread than the issue is.

David Boulter's picture
Wed, 21/09/2011 - 16:29

I think you will find there is a higher common entrance passmark at King's Canterbury than Wellington College

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 19:54

If parents choose to not only pay for private education for their children but submit them to entrance exams as well ,then that's their concern but I wonder what that has got to do with state education?

Melissa Benn's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 09:46

Keith - I am interested in your view of the school lottery and how it works, for good or bad, in Brighton.

Melissa Benn's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 09:49

The other glaring contradiction in Seldon's position, I think, is his support and co sponsorship of free schools based on intense, hour by hour competition ( or so it seems if you read one of Katharine B's blogs on how her school - the one she is s starting up with Seldon's support in south Lambeth - will be run.) What I see emerging there is a cut price regime that runs completely counter to Wellington and Seldon's happiness tinged excellence. Presumably the poor have even fewer rights than the wealthy, and should be grateful for crumbs of counsel from the rich man's table?

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 19:14

O - me old mucker, I think Francis was talking in relative terms about Kings Canterbury, rather like the hierarchical structure in Oxbridge between the colleges where some are more sought after than others.

I expect when these precocious youngsters go down to Newquay after their GCSEs the lad from Kings Canterbury feels a little bit inferior to the girl out he meets from Wellington College and for that reason won't ask her out on a date.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 19:33

Never trust the "%" of GCSE and A Level passes at a private school because these schools are ruthless at kicking out anyone who won't meet the grade well before they sit the exam. Unlike state schools, they have no legal obligation to educate the child no matter what grade they will get. The only really reliable stats on private schools would be the "Value-Added" ones -- but of course we don't have those because they would tell a different story.

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 20:26

Just out of interest, does anyone think there are any circumstances when a public school can sponsor a state school in becoming an academy which is mutually beneficial to either school and pupils? Or should public schools keep out of the state's business?

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 22:53

I think private schools have an agenda in "sponsoring" state schools and, in line with their elitist, exclusive culture, they are highly selective about which schools they are prepared to go into partnership with. I suspect their agenda is to justify the tax benefits they get from enjoying charitable status, and instead of being obliged to offer bursaries to genuinely needy children they can be seen to benefit a whole school with their patronage. This not only enhances their philanthropic image but will encourage the very wealthy bankers, businessmen, billionaires whose children attend their schools, to start giving.

I didn't see private schools rushing to offer their assistance to comprehensive schools, so I think their sudden interest is also politically motivated, as this will go some way to help promote Gove's Academies and Free Schools as exclusive, worthy, excellent, serious, traditional, a gateway to Oxbridge. By not extending their sponsorship to maintained schools, private schools are deliberately and openly colluding with the government to undermine and devalue them.

Privilege and the class system still hold a fascinating sway over the country - witness the rapt awe of both broadcasters and subjects during the royal wedding. And this impulse of the have-nots subjugating themselves to the superiority and condescension of the privileged can be found in the fetishistic worship of private schools, even though on some rational level, we know it is wrong and as pathetic as Dickens' poor house children gawping through the window as their masters feasted on a banquet served up on silver trays.

It is this slavering and slobbering over public schools that has given rise to the belief that a Free School is an "Eton of the State School". I think we should actually fight to keep private schools out of state schools for three simple reasons -

1. They will facilitate free-market control of state schools
2. They will reinforce the propaganda and illusion that Free Schools and Academies are exclusive, elitist and a passport to a top university and public schoolboy job and
3. They will further encourage destructive competition between local schools where the weakest are destroyed rather than supported.

The decision for Murdoch's News International to hold a Sunday Times hosted education event, top heavy with school reformers, in Wellington College was undoubtedly calculated to bathe Academies and Free Schools in a glowing aura of privilege, exclusivity and fast-tracked success. Intoxicating as the invitation to the weekend hunting party might have been, it's time to get back down to earth and see the seduction for what it was and fight to keep state education fairly and justly accessible to all, free of any self-serving or even commercial motives of private schools.

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