Poor? Spawned a genius? Your local private school needs you!

Have you ever wanted to send your child to private school but not been able to afford the fees? Well, guess what? Now you can! Don’t worry about the cost – all you have to do is ensure you’ve spawned a fucking genius.

On Wednesdays, head teachers from 44 independent schools wrote to the Times, announcing that they would like to “admit pupils on merit alone, irrespective of whether their families can afford fees”. Way-hey! That’s big of them. I mean, they’d still want the government to match-fund the fees. And we’re still talking about “merit” here – whatever “merit” means. I suspect it doesn’t mean that just anyone can be swanning off to Dulwich College. You’ve got to be clever. How clever? I don’t know. I’m not clever enough to work it out, but I suspect it’s pretty damn clever if it makes you halfway as valuable as a rich kid.

It’s funny, isn’t it? The Guardian describes this as independent schools pledging to “open their doors to talented pupils from non-privileged backgrounds”. Yet being considered one of the “talented” is surely a privilege in itself. It’s hardly a general open-door policy. It’s one which actually hints at some quite disturbing assumptions to do with wealth and poverty. Are we meant to believe that all independent school pupils whose parents can pay full fees are similarly “talented”? Or is it only fair that if your parents can’t cough up, you still need to be innately “worth” more than others – just in a different way?

I write as someone who’s married to one of the “innately” privileged; my partner wasn’t born rich, but he’s always been really, mind-blowingly clever.* So clever, he won an assisted place at a private school. While he appreciates the opportunities it gave him to study the subjects he wanted, he often describes it as having been run on a two-tier system. There were the rich kids and there were the others. As one of the latter, he almost felt he was there on a salary, paid to push the school higher up the league tables thanks to results he may well have achieved at his old school anyhow. And in writing this, I don’t wish to suggest that none of the wealthy children could do equally well. The point is that they didn’t have to. Their places were not “assisted”, they were “assured”. They might have had to take an entrance exam but let’s be honest – what percentage of the population had they ever had to compete against anyhow?

There are many things which disturb me about the Open Access proposal, not least that it’s a total misnomer in not being remotely “open”. It is used to defend privilege and to link “merit” to a narrowly-defined list of academic achievements. What’s more, it suggests that “social mobility” is the necessary outcome to being intelligent, providing that intelligence is cultivated. That’s just not true. Most of us know that whatever advantages people may have had, the most money is not necessarily earned by the wisest. There are plenty of teachers and academics who earn far less than investment bankers, and this isn’t just a question of opportunity, but one of priorities. If you are privileged you have choices about what you give and what you take back. You might in fact choose not to “progress socially” – whatever the hell that really means.

Private schools offer distinct advantages, but are they really academic ones? Have people such as David Cameron and George Osborne progressed because their intellects were sufficiently cultivated? Or is it something else, something that’s more to do with elitist isolation, networking and entitlement? Is it more about gaining a foot in the door? And if so, why should we assume “gifted” poor children want or deserve this any more than anyone else?

Perhaps we should allow poor children to attend private schools; I suppose it does even up the balance a little. But if we want them to get the most out of it, why look to academic results? Surely that’s not the way to get those who are most suited to the regime? If this is about genuine opportunity and not just a means of purchasing league table places, it’s important to think strategically. Tell you what, why not pick your pupils while they’re still in reception? Just see who’s best at hogging the computer and stealing Dairylea Lunchables from the other children’s rucksacks.

* Apart from in his choice of partner, obvs.