“Have you tried crying in front of the head?” This was the advice given to a friend recently who had left it ‘too late’ to get her four-year-old into a primary school in London. Other parents are having to put up tents, fill flasks and camp out on the doorstep of the best-performing state nurseries because the queue will be so long at 4am when the doors open and there are only 12 coveted places.
The fact that the rights of parents to send their children to grammar schools outside their locality is now curtailed is a reflection on the pressure such schools are coping with. At Henrietta Barnett in North London, 11 girls apply for every place. At nearby Latymer, staff use megaphones during admission week in order to corral frenzied thousands of children and parents.
As the recession gathers pace, the selective state school is increasingly popular among those parents who desire the academic level of a private school, but cannot meet the fees.
Private tutors have been commanded to fix their sights on getting Junior into the nearest state selective or grammar, and school gate conversation outside the London primaries these days is buzzing about this.
My eldest daughter has just started at St Marylebone Church of England school in central London. This all-girls secondary is one of the cream of London’s schools, state or private, and number two in the league table for Westminster. It’s an ambitious, focused comprehensive with banded academic admissions, a tight catchment area and significant church orientation, although girls of all religions and none are encouraged to apply.
It also has Performing Arts status, which means scholarships are offered in dance, music, drama and voice. Our daughter Phoebe was lucky enough to win a music scholarship and I hardly need tell you that when the auspicious letter arrived, the celebrations in the Millard household were various and long-lasting.
How good is she? Well, when she applied, aged 10, she was at Grade 5 in piano, Grade 3 in cello and had just sung the Verdi Requiem (in Latin) at her school choir. Yet this was by no means exceptional. Some of her peers were knocking on the door of Grade 8… at the age of 11.
It’s a tough call. For a child to achieve Grade 5 (the generally accepted standard) by Year 6, you have to start by Year 1. Add instrument two at about Year 3. This means daily practice on both, and total commitment from parent and child. You will discover that you will have to sit by the piano as much as your child does.
In fairness, Phoebe started playing at the age of five, largely because I play and she wanted to learn, not because I knew about this route. But once I did know, it seemed foolish not to pursue it.
Crafty ways in
Quite a few top-ranking schools offer similar musical places, which has meant music has become a big deal at primary level. One parent I know invested £20,000 on a medieval cor anglais purely so their child could field an unusual instrument when selection time came round (every school orchestra needs a cor anglais, you see). Did the child get offered music places at every selective state school for which he applied? Yes, he did.
“That bloody pipe was a great investment”, his mother said to me, a trifle smugly.
All of this reveals that the pressure for primary school children is greater than ever, particularly for grammar schools, other state selective schools and top-ranking comprehensives such as St Marylebone. And since money is of no consequence, all your child can bring to the feast is brain cells and talent. And stamina. At the Dame Alice Owen’s admissions exam last year, children were expected to answer 100 non-verbal reasoning questions in 40 minutes. The eventual waiting list for places had 450 names on it. Getting into such a school has now become rather like winning a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Only this is real life and not something out of Roald Dahl’s imagination.
How are our children coping with all this pressure? Better than the parents, probably. Recently I caught up with a friend whose small daughter was about to face a barrage of exams. She explained her daughter was revising for three hours a day, every day, during the holidays. The daughter looked tense; her mum was almost on the floor with anxiety. Over lunch, she was unable to talk about anything other than non-verbal reasoning.
What is the answer? The further the recession bites, the greater the hammering at the door of good state schools. The bar at the academies and local comprehensives will undoubtedly raise too, since there is bound to be some overspill. But it’s not going to get easier for our 10-year olds. The good news is that we will be left with an entire generation who can all play the cor anglais to Grade Five.
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Biography: Rosie Millard writes about family life and property for The Times and the Sunday Times every week. She was also BBC Arts Correspondent for 10 years and appears regularly on Radio 4 and television. Rosie lives with her husband in London and they have four children