The London prep school circuit is a horrible racket

These places aim to create a miniature executive class out of their small pupils

21 May 2016

9:00 AM

21 May 2016

9:00 AM

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.

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  • Teacher

    When we sent our two littlies to prep school we wanted the academic education, the fun, the nice (and clever) teachers and the happiness the two schools exuded without the sniping, competitiveness of the other parents. Some parents were truly awful in a variety of ways:-snobbish, vulgar, sporty, materialistic, some were downright immoral and had made the money to pay the fees in illegal ways. Others were like us: middle class, aspirational, geeky, great readers and ‘culcher vulchers’.

    We kept ourselves and our children away from the cut throat competition which the above story vividly describes – and were eventually snubbed for not going on the right holidays, owning the right car and house, having the right investments and aiming our children at Mandarin speaking uber-independents. We were undeterred and took the part that we wanted from the system while evading the rest.

    Our children have grown up into moral, taxpaying, normal, nice, happy individuals who also laugh at the fast set. I particularly like the fact that both are accurate, polished writers in their own ways. It was what we wanted.

    I would advise Tanya Gold to decide what she wants from her children’s education and to go for it. She does seem to be somewhat seduced by the norf Lundon elitery already while claiming to shun it. I urge caution. Your kids are, believe it or not, apprentice human beings and deserve a happy childhood as well as the best that academic education can offer.

    • davidofkent

      After reading the drivel in paragraphs one and two, I was surprised at the outcome of paragraph three. From both the article and this comment, I deduce that this country is full of mad people.

  • Polly Radical

    That’s the worst kind of socialist: a private school socialist.

    • Tamerlane

      I don’t know, there’s always Bedales. A socialist private school!

      • Chris Thompson

        No such thing.

        • Tamerlane

          Bedales is real.

          • Chris Thompson

            No such thing as a socialist private school.

          • Tamerlane

            Same answer. Bedales is real.

          • Chris Thompson

            What’s socialist about £30,000+ per year? Or maybe the school gives a few of the lower classes free places to make the rest of the parents feel good about themselves.

          • Tamerlane

            Plant tongue firmly in cheek. Go along with the humour, if you understand it. You do need to know something about the school and it helps to know personally a few who have been there… if you don’t then you won’t get the joke and I can’t be bothered to explain it to you either because plenty will have read my comment and smirked and that’s good enough for me. Besides it was meant for them, not you.

            Have a fab weekend.

          • Chris Thompson

            What an unpleasant, self-satisfied person you are. Have a fab weekend.

          • Tamerlane

            I will now.

          • Chris Thompson

            Nahnah nee nahnah

          • Tamerlane

            In a word how would you describe your debating skills?

          • Chris Thompson

            Weak. Can’t be bothered any more. Bye.

          • Tamerlane


          • Father Todd Unctious


          • Tamerlane

            Harsh, he’s not a monumental twit, but he is a twit.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            You ugly little creep.

    • Freeuk Militia


  • right1_left1

    The educational system in the UK is a racket.
    The consequences are white on white apartheid..
    The masses are too stupified , like looking at a cobras eyes before he strikes , to recognise it.

    adding :Then we have black on white disdain fostered by nincompoops and the circle is complete

    • Tamerlane

      UK ‘educational system’ ain’t illegal. Therefore not, by definition, a racket.

      • right1_left1

        The following ain’t illegal
        The issuance of fiat money
        Preposterous rewards paid to top BBC execs.
        All succesful lotteries and gambling in general.
        The flow of paper money trying to maintain the value of shares
        ie the stock exchange casino.
        Mass immigration of an unskilled workforce.

        All are basically ‘rackets’ in the colloquial sense of the word !

        A two tier education system would be totally acceptable if it had produced positive outcomes.
        What it has produced is ever more very expensive bean counters , legal eagles who can make what could be decided in a couple of days last weeks , months and sometimes years.
        see Hillsborough enquiry i (to be followed by Orgreave and preceded by the Bloody Sunday )

        Remember the compensation scheme to miners for industrial injury
        most of which was purloined by the legal profession in a perfectly legal way ?

        Bankruptcy aint illegal either but it often benefits spivs the devious and the racketeers
        Those who continue taking money knowing full well the business is going to fail with loss to the creditor.
        The dot com bubble was perfectly legal racket !

        • Tamerlane

          A racket is illegal by definition. Unless you’re playing tennis. Nothing you can do about that. End of.

  • DoubleDegreeHolders4Trump

    The price of getting your kid into Westminster, Colet Court, etc., at age 7+ is not worth it, unless they are natural geniuses. Too stressful, too academic, too early.

    • rtj1211

      The price is most likely having lots of money in the bank, lots of influential/powerful contacts and having turned your children into final year undergraduates at the age of 6.

      I had the most unusual experience of the local primary headmistress informing my father that I had to be accelerated as my reading age was far superior to my age-like peers, yet when I became 9/10 I was specifically excluded for trying for any independent school scholarships, for reasons I cannot fathom but probably being that I didn’t fit into lower-middle-class society so I was deemed to have ‘something wrong with me’. The fact that I finished the 11 plus in under half the allotted time to a sufficient standard to get into grammar school was irrelevant. I was ‘too good to be in the right year’ in the state system and ‘had something wrong with me’ so shouldn’t study with children my own age independently.

      You’d better ask my aspirational socialist father why. He let his daughter try things out. Then he farmed me out to third rate public schools at 13 to cover up for his failings.

      The fact that I’ve spent the past 20 years running rings round the nonsense of London/Eton-educated non-entities promoted due to their CV alma maters is neither here nor there. I learned what I learned abroad, so i am a threat to the Establishment culture.

      To get your children into such establishments, teach them: sneering; an indelible sense of entitlement utterly divorced from what they deserve; how to be impervious to anyone else’s right to privacy; how to break every rule of society without being punished; and how to ostracise anyone else who breaks the same rules without being in your magic circle.

      That’s what you need your children to be like.

      If you don’t want that, don’t send your children there.

      • grammarschoolman

        ‘socialist father’

        Something wrong with you? That’s it, right there.

    • grammarschoolman

      I know a boy who’s at Colet Court since 7, Never have a seen a happier boy, because he’s getting opportunities he’d never have had at the crappy primaries down the road. He’s vaguely academic but no genius.

      • Tamerlane

        When do you graduate?

  • grammarschoolman

    ‘It is, for a leftist, hypocrisy.’

    Too right. You lot gave us bog-standard comprehensives (and primaries), and opposed all attempts to improve them, so the least you can do is make your own kids suffer them.

    • Dave Hill

      I’m surprised nobody has popped up to denounce you as a class warrior.

  • Tamerlane

    Why don’t you just tap Toby Young for a place at The Royal London Toby Young Academical Amazing Bring a Bottle Exclusive Free School?

    • grammarschoolman

      You mean the one even his own kids can’t get into because it applies the admissions rules so strictly?

      • Tamerlane

        That’s the one!

  • commenteer

    I’d give it a miss and look outside London. It’s not as if Westminster is that great shakes, anyway.

  • balance_and_reason

    so you are a hypocrite….

  • Freeuk Militia

    Don’t live in London then do the right thing and move your children to a prep school in North Yorkshire were real England still exists

  • Margot5000

    Someone do a piece on Torbay – true educational apartheid – and the locals don’t see they’re being done. Several grammar schools that ship in kids from miles around to keep their stats up – with the local take-everybody-else schools on special measures.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      Too many English in Devon again.

  • JimHHalpert

    Please get rid of this crap from the Spectator.

  • justejudexultionis

    I went to a comp and went to both Cambridge and Harvard. What precisely is the point of these English ‘public’ schools, other than primitive social engineering?

    • Sue Smith

      They’re not the only ones engaged in social engineering. Most universities now have that, er, distinction.

  • judyk113

    Speaking as a very experienced former OFSTED inspector, I am bemused by the way Tanya Gold seems to think state schools offer some sort of Arcadian experience to children, which is in complete contrast to the elite schools she’s visited where she thinks they are broken. All this on the basis of a few staged visits to elite schools on display. Really, I wonder why she hasn’t offered her services to replace the inspectorate. She also seems delightfully unaware that there is also a hierarchy of desirability for state schools, particularly those in Muswell Hill, and these days, being able to lay down two or three million for suitably sited housing in the catchment area of the supposedly most desirable schools in that neck of the woods may not be sufficient to ensure the dear little boy gets in. I have sat in hundreds of state school classrooms where the children are short changed and the lessons dreary, taught by under-educated and insufficiently imaginative teachers led by head teachers whose first thoughts are of their league table places (type one) or their places in the union hierarchy (type schools). Tanya Gold seems unaware that there are many different ways in which children can be broken by their schooling. Most, in fact, are not. Does she consider her friends who went to elite schools (and I have no doubt that she has some) are broken, or does she think child-breaking is a recent development in independent schools? I have also seen absolutely outstanding state schools, led by outstanding heads. Certainly the children will learn well and develop basic talents in those, but they will never have anything like the musical, drama,sports, museum/gallery visiting or arts opportunities they will get in the schools she sneers at (whilst still going round them).