It could only happen in the movies

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
Let me share an unsettling cinema experience. My popcorn and I spent a dank winter afternoon at Finding Forrester, in which Sean Connery plays a Pulitzer-winning writer mislaid for 40 reclusive years in a Bronx tenement. He meets a tough young black basketball player with a sensitive streak, becomes his literary mentor, and eventually (didja guess it?) does a Silas Marner and emerges from hiding to repay the kid's integrity in spades. As a sucker for salvation-through-literature I loved it (enough, even, to forgive Mr Connery the whiskers and the weird accent). But coming on top of the previous week's UK school announcements, one aspect of the plot caused my jaw to drop open. I have no idea how realistic it is, but it caused no particular controversy in the American reviews, so presumably it happens.

Jamal, you see, is a dirt-poor black boy in a South Bronx school, who gets lousy grades and carries a basketball everywhere. He does his reading and writing in private, at home, and nobody knows about it. Yet his teacher calls in his single mother to tell her that Jamal's routine "tests" show very high intelligence, so why isn't he working better?

Neither party seems surprised that a routine procedure has identified academic potential in a sullen 16-year-old basketball freak. Given our own poor record at spotting which of our youth are actually gifted, rather than just annoying, this gave pause for thought.

Then something even stranger happens. A Manhattan private school swoops down and headhunts the kid, C grades and all, offering him a scholarship to their panelled libraries and Corinthian columns. They press him to come, even though we later realise that they want not only his brains but his basketball skills, because "this is a school that likes to win". Jamal takes up the offer and is shortly seen dressed up in a smart crested blazer and flannels which his poor Mom definitely didn't pay for.

Other events then happen, but they need not worry us; the bit which had me gasping was this whole IQ-test-headhunt manoeuvre, which to a UK viewer is as outlandish as anything in Star Trek. For a start, there is the cheerful acknowledgement by the poor black family, and Jamal's mates, that the private school is very good indeed and will do well by him. OK, it is full of rich racist preppie kids, but Jamal seems to shrug that off as long s the teaching and the basketball are there for him.

Then - rub your eyes! - the headteacher of his Bronx school is happy too, and sends him off with a cheery wave to find his intellectual destiny. Being British, I was braced for half-an-hour of dreary debate about whether he should betray his working-class roots and leave his old housebreaking friends just for the piffling advantage of being better taught, but it never happened. Sure, he feuds with the bitter English professor, but that is plot stuff; nobody suggests any systemic reason why the move shouldn't work.

Nobody crashes in, ranting that it is immoral to cream off talent; nor was there a Harry Brighouse figure to demand that even independents should be banned by law from ever selecting on any grounds, including academic.

The whole mind-set was very un-British. It made me blink. It also made me think about a conversation with Peter Lampl, whose scholarship fund is based on the philosophy that what the hell, independent schools are just another national resource, so if they're good we might as well try to share the benefits round a bit. Find talent wherever it lurks, and however late it manifests itself; give it the best teaching and never mind from whence it emanates.

Then I thought glumly about the church school announcement, and the specialist colleges, and the rump of bog-standards (copyright A Campbell) which will be left behind; and I saw how we are sliding in precisely the opposite direction. We are going to select like hell - but not transparently, and not, alas, on raw potential. We are going to perpetuate a culture which benefits the canny, manipulative, affluent parents, the postcode-jugglers and fake genuflectors and sudden converts to any religion, art or sport favoured by an institution offering fine GCSEs and no riff-raff.

We are already halfway there: quite apart from the parents who artfully train their children to feign musical enthusiasm or sporting interest, I meet a disconcerting number of families, especially around London, whose latest wheeze is to send their children to private preps so they get advanced enough to win a selective place in a top state secondary.

Meanwhile, there must be Jamals hiding their light under bushels, but nobody is hunting them down and forcing them to put on green blazers and concentrate. Oh dear.

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