The Times, 15 March 2008


I have to tell you, it was a close-run thing. My favourite money story this week, I mean. You’d think the budget would have been a shoo-in, and normally it would, except it was kind of boring if you don’t drive much. And I know wine is going up by fourteen pence a bottle on Sunday night, but I’m pretty confident that on Monday morning, in my local supermarket, there’ll still be loads of it for £3.99.

The John Lewis list was a late entry, obviously, and for any politicians wondering, it will be the fact that you could spend £200 of my money on a blender which will make you the first against the wall when the revolution comes. Really, it will. At the next election, when someone asks you about voter turnout, don’t blame the apathy of youth, because apathy doesn’t quite do justice to the emotion most of us feel on discovering that you could each spend £250 on a coffee machine. I know, I know, it’s essential. Or at least it would be, if man hadn’t invented the kettle. An example of which can currently be bought at Tesco for £4.60.

But even that was beaten into second place by Ed Balls’ astonishing revelation, based on unverified research (ooh, my favourite kind) that some state schools are charging parents admission fees. The good ones, obviously, where the children come out the other end largely uninjured. Not the ones where the body-piercing is done with scissors. One school in North London admitted that it was asking for £50 to fund extra-curricular activities. They give you the money back if your kid doesn’t get in, though, sadly missing the opportunity to almost define the notion of adding insult to injury.

The schools admissions procedure is mesmerising, even to the childless. Every part of it seems designed to induce the worst aspects of humanity. Some schools are brilliant, some are dreadful, and your child could end up in either. It’s like the scene in Flash Gordon where Peter Duncan has to shut his eyes and put his arm in a tree stump to see if he gets bitten by a lethal space-crab. Not liking their odds in many parts of the country (and let’s not forget that Duncan gets the venom), parents play the system – moving house, finding God, assassinating the children next door. O’Brien has to hold a cage of rats over Winston’s eyes to make him shriek, ‘Do it to Julia’. We just have to offer a schools lottery.

I think the new-found religion one is the most chilling, though. If I’d seen my parents acquire a sudden and unexpected fondness for the Pope, I would have thought they’d gone quite mad. And that was before the Vatican issued a new list of seven deadly sins this week, which puts contraception on a par with murder, and prohibits ‘morally debatable scientific experiments.’ I was going to pack up my laboratory and stop trying to build that robot boy, but as an ardent fan of Marvelon, I guess I’m going to hell already.

But after all the mud slung at pushy parents, now it turns out that the schools themselves may not be without corruption. Some apparently ask for an admission fee, others for compulsory donations. Which, to anyone but an accountant, sounds a lot like a fee. Actually, my accountant thinks it’s a fee too. There’s something rather brilliant about the fact that most of the schools that stand accused of these practices are faith schools. With the faith in Arthur Daley, rather than an omnipotent being, I suppose. Perhaps they could specialise in teaching of bribery, and add blackmail, extortion, and fraud to the curriculum too. When Ronald Searle invented St Trinians, he can’t have imagined that its moral values would one day seem perfectly reasonable.

The admissions code for schools is a baffling mishmash of ideologies – you can admit children for aptitude, but not for ability. You can let them in if they have a sibling at the school, but not if it’s a cousin. Children in care take precedence and special needs children must be given priority. In other words, the best thing you can do for your child’s future is to abandon them, after making sure they have a dyslexic older brother.

But why should schools be the only ones to make money in this whole grotty business? Parents of children who are already at desirable schools should start auctioning off the right to adopt them, thus providing next year’s intake with a handy set of older siblings in situ. And why just auction them off once? Each child could sustain at least five new brothers and sisters, surely. And if it’s a Roman Catholic school you’re trying to get into, that would probably earn you double points.