For all the thousands of parents condemning themselves to genteel poverty, going without holidays and taking on three part-time jobs to afford the school fees, thousands more shrug and aim for the ‘least worst’ option in the State sector. Some move house or ‘get Christianity’ (regularly and publicly, after a lifetime of atheism) or, even less convincingly, Judaism to qualify for sought-after Church schools. One previously non-religious couple in Putney, which boasts excellent Catholic and Church of England establishments, took a particularly cynical route to double their chances the mother went to Mass each week and the father attended Holy Communion.

For the relatively few families still living in areas served by grammar schools, ferocious hot-housing is the order of the day, although the effort is mostly fruitless, as up to 30 children compete for each place, so only super-brains who also play a blinder on the day of the exam stand a chance.
For those in the know, however, even those without a job in the City or obliging grandparents, there are hundreds of opportunities to secure a cut-price education for their children.

Like Mrs Worthington, the craftiest parents plan well ahead and put their daughter (or son) on the stage, concert-hall or sports field at an early age in the hopes of producing a budding young musician, artist or games-player in time for the great bursary and scholarship merry-go-round at the age of 10 or 12.

Even the old hands are often unaware of the huge amounts of financial help on offer, ranging from the run-of-the-mill academic awards, designed to attract the brainboxes who will help to ensure the school’s position in the league tables, to generous grants to reward a range of specialist skills, including sport, art, drama, music and, more quirkily, chess, rugby, ballet, squash, gymnastics and even leadership, as well as those for the offspring of the clergy, armed forces, old boys of the school and able children from local State schools.

Most public schools also offer means-tested bursaries to reasonably bright, although not scholarship-level children, something many teachers in State primaries, hostile to the ethos of independent education, are reluctant to reveal to parents. Increasingly, schools such as Dulwich College and St Paul’s are attempting to means-test even the scholarships.

Highly academic youngsters from well-heeled families are often given only a nominal financial award and have to content themselves with the kudos of being among the star performers in their intake, but poorer scholarship children sometimes receive grants ranging from 50% of their fees to an entirely free place, plus help with hidden costs such as travel and uni-forms, to ensure that they’re not debarred from attending through lack of funds.

It’s all a far cry from the days when the top public schools were far too grand and confident to offer more than a handful of usually niggardly academic awards. The unspoken rule of thumb then was that only the third-rate establishments, generally presided over by effusive, Grenfellesque head-mistresses (‘St Hildegarde’s is essentially a happy school’) needed to boost their rollsof honour with scholarships for deportment, the Mrs Joyfull Prize for Raffia-Work and so on. In the 1950s and 1960s, Johnny-Come-Latelies, particularly Millfield School, in Somerset, were also regarded as spivvy and slightly suspect for buying in sporting stars such as Gareth Davies, Mark Cox and Duncan Goodhew, with generous if not 100% scholar-ships thanks to the exorbitant fees charged for accepting the children of the super-rich.

Even for those already at the school, it always pays to ask. One cash-strapped friend whose daughter was an academic scholar at Millfield was finding even the reduced fees a strain, so after her GCSE year, in which she got the predictable clutch of A*s, he negotiated a free sixth-form place for her at a grammar school near her home. Horrified at the prospect of their star scholar and shoo-in for an Oxbridge place walking away to confer her reflected glory on another school, Millfield immediately came back with an even more generous offer, and the girl stayed on.

These days, with boarding no longer an automatic option for middle-class families and ferocious competition for the pool of talented candidates who are likely to bring glory on the school via Oxbridge awards or sporting prowess, canny, well-organised parents with a clear-sighted view of their child’s strengths and limitations are in a strong position in the mutual seduction process that is the scholarship system. Even the big-name traditional schools, such as Harrow and Tonbridge, now offer a range of non-academic awards, a few up to 50% of the fees, which could bring a high-quality education within reach of the less affluent.

It takes me back to when my daughter was ‘preparing’, in lackadaisical fashion, for the round of secondary-school entrance exams, including several local independent schools. I was all too aware, via the school grapevine, of the weight of academic, artistic and sporting endeavour currently under way, not for its own sake, but to ensure that child should hit peak form in time for the scholarship assessment days, most held early in the New Year.

Feeling rather guilty that my involvement extended no further than saying ‘Speak up’ crossly as Madeline reluctantly mumbled her way through the complicated rigmarole of the T. S. Eliot poem that she had decided to inflict on the adjudicators at an assessment for a nearby school’s drama scholarship, I listened awestruck to the tales of self-sacrifice from the ambitious mothers at the school gate.

Parents already spending a small fortune in school fees were hiring tutors in everything from the dreaded ‘gerbil reasoning’ to a third, less-fashionable instru-ment to boost their child’s chances of a music scholarship. A friend looking round Uppingham School was given a significant steer by the music director, who remarked: ‘We’re very short of double basses, parents please note.’ She duly signed her daughter up for lessons with predictable success.

Paranoia rules. One mother whose 10-year-old daughter is a nationally ranked swimmer, aiming for a scholarship at Millfield or Kelly College in Devon, begged to remain anonymous lest the girl’s main rival should also hear of the Kelly scholarships and apply as well. According to one mother whose daughter Emily won a top music scholarship from her prep school to a well-known Midlands public school, commitment is crucial.

‘In the months before the exam, Emily was getting up at 6.30am every morning to practise the clarinet and piano,’ she recalls, ‘doing more practice each night and also compiling a musical CV-a big brochure of all the concerts she’d played in, exams she’d taken, competitions she’d entered-to show her involvement in music. She’d been singing for a couple of years in our church choir, but then decided to take Grade V singing from scratch to prove to the examiners what she could do. She even took up the bassoon just beforehand-clarinets are two a penny, but the bassoon would help her stand out.

‘When she got the scholarship we were utterly delighted, as it was such a boost to her confidence. She got her name on the honours board at school and went away to board for the first time, feeling good about herself. Financially, it was a godsend, too, as the award was worth 25%, a huge saving for us as the fees were £6,000 a term.’

Like Emily, 19-year-old Charles Wootton, now a professional cricketer with Leicestershire and an outstanding all-round sportsman, decided early that he would go all-out for a scholarship, in his case a sports award at Cheltenham College, where a third of each year’s intake receives some form of financial help, including awards for academic prowess, art, music, sport and leadership, special grants for old boys’ children and means-tested bursaries.

‘Charles chose Cheltenham after going to a tester day, during which he boarded overnight and tried out scores of different sports,’ says his mother Drenagh. ‘He loved the facilities and the atmosphere. Although he’s a talented sportsman, until he did the assessment, we had no idea if he’d be offered anything, as the scholarships are discretionary and depend on how you compare with the rest of the applicants on the day. If you’re up against, say, a couple of brilliant boys, they might get offered 50% awards and you might get maybe 10% or 20%. As it turned out, he did really well and was given a very generous scholarship-and he’s thrived at Cheltenham.

‘He also had to get through the academic entrance exam and that was the most difficult part. Because he’s so active, he’s never been too keen on reading, so we got a tutor to help brush up his English. At least the thought of all that sport made him work a bit harder!’ Wishing that my own little prodigy would discover similar motivation, I returned to the drone of T. S. Eliot. ‘Speak up and stop looking at the floor,’ I ordered wearily, for the 15th time. The familiar argument ensued. ‘I don’t care if I don’t pass anyway,’ flared Madeline. ‘I only want to go there if Eleanor’s going-although it would be nice to get a scholarship and put Annabel’s nose out of joint.’