TV Review - Time to 'polish up' rough diamonds

12th March 2010 at 00:00
Too Poor for Posh School? Thursday March 11, Channel 4

"To some extent you are playing god, with a small 'g'," says multi-millionaire Peter Beckwith. "You have got the ability by saying yes or no to alter the destiny of this one individual, and you don't make that decision lightly."

With this line, Mr Beckwith sums up the air of paternalism that surrounds the selection procedure for the two #163;200,000 scholarships he sponsors at Harrow, the elite boarding school in London.

Yesterday's Channel 4 Cutting Edge documentary Too Poor for Posh School? follows 11 shortlisted boys through the final selection day for the scholarships, which took place last November.

We see the masters of the school relishing their ability to handpick the finest young minds while demonstrating their social responsibility by transporting boys from modest backgrounds to a world of exceptional privilege. Like Sir Alan Sugar picking his apprentice, Mr Beckwith compares his scholars to "rough diamonds" who need "polishing up".

However, some of those shortlisted look far from rough.

The precocious Krishan, ten, who has an IQ of 141, speaks in a plummy posh voice (his parents sent him to prep school because no state primary would accept him aged three).

He says he is wearing a suit and tie to the Harrow selection day because such a special event required him to get "all dandied up". When he grows up he wants to be a spy. In the interview with the headmaster, Barnaby Lenon, Krishan talks as if he is reading from the school prospectus, but he is oddly convincing. He wins a place.

Another boy, Alex, is a chorister training at the Royal College of Music and already has Grade 7 in piano and violin. No information is given on his deprived background. He is offered a place, but we later learn he has turned it down and is "looking at other schools, including Eton".

There are less polished performances from two other boys on the programme.

Numhan, from an ordinary but ambitious Pakistani family in Southall, London, may have been foolish to tell the headmaster he "wants to be a footballer" when he grows up.

The joker in the pack though is the state-educated Tumi, whose dad works nights sorting letters for the Royal Mail. His mum sets him extra homework before leaving for work at 5am.

He freezes up in the panel discussion and lacks the over-coached finesse of the other candidates. But he does well in maths and music, and the masters are charmed enough to take a punt on him.

The programme is a fascinating glimpse at the selection procedure. The masters, who initially appear elitist and patronising, are genuinely concerned that someone such as Tumi does not slip through the net.

But above all, it shows how much of a child's future is decided long before entrance to secondary school.

Whatever their backgrounds, all the boys depicted have ambitious parents, who push them hard to excel. You can't help thinking they are destined to do well whatever the masters at Harrow decide.

Too Poor for Posh School? is available on 4 on Demand.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today