Anthony Seldon looked a little uneasily at me. It was the first time I’ve actually seen him lose a degree of his composure.
To be fair, I had been a little rude. I was in the headmaster’s lodge at Wellington College and drinking a little glass of champagne, kindly provided by the Sunday Times Festival, when Anthony said hello in a friendly fashion.
Embolded a little by the champagne, I said: “But Anthony, you’ve never really responded to my question that I posed at last year’s festival, how can claim to have children's happiness at the heart of your school when you insist upon draconian entrance tests for your school?”
I do know a great many people “on the right” who would have immediately become shirty, but not Anthony, who is, what anyone might think of him, always a gentleman. He dutifully answered my question, saying that Wellington was massively over-subscribed and that they did need a way of selecting pupils. I said he could select the pupils’ by lottery. Anthony looked a tiny bit bewildered by the thought of a lottery and muttered some stuff about children needing to realise that the “real” world of jobs was all about selection.
“Yes, but Anthony, you’re leaving these children, as young as eleven, feeling like they’re failures because they haven’t got into your school. It has a massive psychological impact upon them. It deeply affects their happiness.”
Anthony promised to discuss the point at a later date. He is vulnerable on the issue because not only does he claim to have children's happiness at the heart of his school, but also he's been very critical of state schools for being exam factories. Have you seen how many exams there are for Common Entrance?
Think of the signal that it would send, if Seldon did select pupils by lottery? Toby Young banged on during his speech about how wonderful private schools are, but he never mentioned how selective they are, or how they boot out any pupils that don’t look like they’re going to make the grade.
Of course, Seldon will never select by lottery -- it would ruin the school's "outstanding" results.