This week my daughter, 11, got the equivalent of a whopping scratch card win in the lottery of life; she got into the secondary school of her choice, an outcome partly determined by her being a Catholic, partly by dint of her entirely fortuitous proximity to the school in question. Some of her classmates are also going around punching the air, others, also baptised, aren’t, presumably on the basis that they didn’t live close enough. They’re a bit subdued right now, poor mites; at the age of eleven, they’ve got the sense that things haven’t really worked out for them, unless quite a few of the lucky ones turn down their place. Or in my case, fail to take it up because I’m a bit rubbish dealing with the cross-borough e-admissions site.
Other girls in her class are noticeably blasé about the whole thing, in their case because they’re already sorted, in the private sector. They went through their bit of angst when they were getting into a tizz a few weeks ago about the 11-plus. In their case however, they’d been tutored within an inch of their short lives; as my daughter said, saucer-eyed, some of them paid FIFTY POUNDS a lesson to be part of a class of 30, which suggests to me that there’s a good living to be made in the private tutoring lark. Unlike my daughter’s tests, theirs were no joke; they were really hard, designed to weed out the under-performers. And they were interviewed too; why, it’s like getting into Cambridge. Some of them will end up by default in the state sector; yep, we get the middle class’s under-achievers.
There is, you’ll know, dear reader, a sheep and goats situation here, and I’m not talking about the religious one. The private sector operates by its own rules and obviously it’s perfectly within its rights. Free country and all that. If private schools want to sort by academic selection or by any other criterion, that’s their business. I went to a private school myself for a couple of years after I finished my state education in Ireland, and it was great. (I was on half fees, which I carried with me in cash on the boat from Ireland, in the sole of my boot.) And indeed no one right now is seriously suggesting that private schools should be done away with; I mean, half the Shadow Cabinet would find itself in a bind on that one.
But do, please, bear this reality in mind when the next row is underway about whether state schools should be allowed to select their intake on the basis of academic ability or religion. It’s still possible that Mrs May’s idea about allowing the creation of more grammar schools will go ahead. It’s almost certain that she is going to support lifting the entirely arbitrary ban on schools admitting their entire intake on the basis of religious domination if they want to – as the Catholic bishops want the discretion to do.
Because an awful lot of the people who will be sounding off against the very existence of schools that discriminate in their intake on the basis of religion will have been to, or will have sent their children or grandchildren to, schools that are Christian in their foundation and which discriminate quite explicitly on a social basis, on the ability to pay. Those Tory MPs and peers who find Catholic schools disgustingly aberrant in multi-faith Britain? Most of them will have been to Anglican foundations which usually select on the basis of academic ability and all of which select on the social basis that if you can’t afford the fees, you don’t go.
So…before they’re allowed even to enter the debate on state schools, ask them about their own record. It’ll shut quite a few of them up.