Philip Hensher: Not all good schools require a king's ransom

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The Independent Online

A heartwarming tale of A-level success from Darlington last week. Readers with very long memories may recall, 18 years ago, a baby being taken from a hospital ward by a woman posing as a social worker. After three weeks, the baby was recovered, unharmed. Spool forward to 2008 and the baby, Alex Griffiths, has just received an A and two Bs in her A-levels. She plans – or hopes, rather, in this competitive and inflated market – to study maths at Manchester University.

To what, may we ask, do you owe your success, Alex? Miss Griffiths was quite clear about this. Her mother sold her story to a tabloid for £110,000. She then used it to pay a private school called Polam Hall to educate her daughter.

"If I had gone to a normal, mainstream school ... I wouldn't have got such good results," Miss Griffiths said. "It's strange to think that I probably wouldn't have done as well as I did if I hadn't been kidnapped when I was a baby."

Marvellous stuff, this, promptly disproving the idea that private education improves anyone's sense of good taste.

What really concerns me, and ought to concern anyone, is the increasingly general idea that any private education is better than any state education. No doubt Polam Hall, an old Quaker establishment, offers a decent quality of education, though research shows that it can't guarantee that your kid isn't going to get a D or E at A-level, and its figures are oddly boosted by a heavy and anomalous class of students taking Chinese A-level, and all getting As and Bs, for whatever reason.

But the assumption that private education is better than state – even that having gone to a private school is some kind of qualification in itself – is on the increase. Some private schools are, true, good; the ones that match or surpass the best state schools, however, do so by savage selection, and ruthlessly sacking any kid likely to lower their grade average.

Just how false this assumption can be comes with another story of A-level success, the Oke quadruplets from south London. From the outside, this is a family which ticks all the wrong buttons. Tolu, Tayo, Tobi and Tosin Oke were brought up by a single mother in South London.

Four children of the same age must have placed an enormous strain on their mother – a recipe, you might have thought, for disaster. Julie, their mother, must be a remarkable woman.

They studied at St Francis Xavier's, a state school in Clapham, and are all going to top universities – one sister, Tolu, to Cambridge to read history, and the others to Manchester, Goldsmiths and Queen Mary.

They all got As and Bs in their A-levels. They are obviously impressive kids, and St Francis Xavier's is an impressive organisation. Many of us regret the way the political establishment links the religious ethos of schools like St Francis Xavier's with their record.

Be that as it may, there's no overlooking the fact that they achieve the sorts of results which most independent schools would, and do, throw pupils overboard to get anywhere near.

It would really be an awful statement about modern Britain if you could, indeed, only get an education by spending £100,000.

I don't think it's true; but it may become true if enough people start believing it.

All the emperor's men – Sir Nils the penguin deserves his honours

There is a definite strain of lovable eccentricity in the Norwegian character, and it was a very good idea of a lieutenant in the Norwegian army, Nils Egelian, to adopt a penguin from the Edinburgh Zoo as a regimental mascot.

Lt Egelian must have been a persuasive fellow, however, to have talked the Norwegian government into awarding one of these noble animals a knighthood to go with it. The third and most recent recipient of the Norwegian knighthood, a six-year old named Nils, was on parade at the weekend, and wonderfully conscious of his dignity he looked, too.

And why not? I'm sure giving the odd knighthood to a much-loved animal would be a great improvement over all those terrible old government accountants, sopranos, antique rock guitarists and atrocious sit-com performers who are currently clogging up the awards lists.

Caligula made his horse a senator. It must have crossed the Queen's mind from time to time to give her much-loved Arabian, Burmese, some sort of MBE.

The gorillas in London Zoo have, surely to God, put in enough hours under the public gaze to deserve some sort of gong.

Sir Nils, the Norwegian regimental mascot, honestly doesn't seem the slightest bit more absurd to me than those knighthoods handed out to people for reaching Grade One in the civil service, or for rowing quite quickly at the Olympics.Let's have more knighted penguins in national life.

Lost on tarmac: one truck, loaded with bags

Boris Johnson remarks, very truly, that to call Gatwick a third world airport is to insult the very many efficient and reliable airports in the developing world.

To arrive at the airports of Cairo or Calcutta is – relatively speaking – a pleasure, an experience of politeness and decency, and well-organised systems of baggage handling and passport control, with someone to talk to if you need to. On the other hand, yesterday Heathrow Terminal 5 contrived to delay a plane I was on by an hour by the simple means of losing a luggage truck between the airport buildings and the plane.

That takes real talent, and a highly expensive computerised system.


The piece of new music which struck me most this year has been Janacek's Glagolitic Mass, performed at the Proms last Friday.

Actually, it's a venerable old classic, 82 years old. But every time I hear the mass, some musicologist has got his hands on it and rewritten great swathes of it. Since I first got to know the piece, it's gained a movement, lost an organ intermezzo, and developed all sorts of avant garde tendencies beyond the playing capacities of a 1920s Czech provincial orchestra. To be honest, I liked it much more before the editors started mucking about with it. Can't we have our boyhood favourites left in peace?