The great school fee fixing scandal - which has led the Office of Fair Trading to launch an inquiry into whether the likes of Eton and Winchester have breached the Competition Act - will come as no surprise to their customers. Parents shell out an average of £7,764 a year - and sometimes as much as £20,000 at boarding schools - for the privilege of having their children educated alongside other rich kids. They probably guessed that their children's school operated some sort of cartel to fix fees, because these parents are used to being kicked around.
Many schools - notably the poshest London fee-charging schools - also operate what amount to cartels to fix their admissions. Each school sets its own admissions examination and charges a cool £50 to allow an 11-year-old or a 13-year-old to sit it. But each school makes parents complete a form naming the schools they want, in order of preference, and this list is made available to all the schools to which they apply.
The schools win every way. Before it offers a place, a school can check whether it was the first choice and, if not, can check whether the first-choice school is making an offer. On the other hand, setting its own exam enables a school to take in exactly the pupils it wants. It works rather less well for the parents, who rely on bits of gossip to know the likely reaction of particular heads to being only the third preference.
A fee-charging school can have any admissions arrangements it wants. It is not subject to any of the rules that in state schools safeguard against unfairness or social selection or even racism. It can accept or reject anyone it likes, and does not have to give reasons (and most do not). Many interview parents as well as pros-pective pupils. There is no external appeal.
Once a child is in the school, the parents find they have few means of influen- cing what goes on. There are probably no parent governors, and if there are, they are as likely to be chosen by the head as elected by the parents. The school is as accountable to parents as any other business from which they might buy something - their local supermarket, for example. That is to say, it is not accountable to them at all. There is nobody to appeal to against any of the school's decisions - if, say, your child is suspended or expelled.
Fee-charging schools, held up by those on the right as symbols of parental choice, are actually places where parents are rendered powerless. And the parents seem to like it that way.
You hear them complaining, to be sure, but it is sotto voce, as of the workings of some divinity that holds the fate of their nearest and dearest in its hands and must be placated at all costs. The more arrogant and dictatorial the stern, gowned figure in charge, the more they seem to prefer it. It's like going to one of those newly fashionable boot-camp-style health clubs, where you pay large sums of money to be shouted at and abused.
So whatever the OFT decides, don't expect parents to rise in revolt. They have already tolerated an average 8 per cent increase in fees this year. They are not - or not principally - paying for high standards, good teaching, fine facilities or even small classes. They are paying to have their children educated separately from the 93 per cent who go to state schools. They think they are buying their children a better future. And in the land of snobbery, they are right. It is not surprising that they do not demand democracy in the schools they pay for. Democracy, when they chose their child's school, was the last thing on their minds.