Private schools are more repressive than a South American dictatorship, says Jojo Moyes. The parents of runaway Christine should be glad of her independent spirit
There has been much hand-wringing about 16-year-old Christine Hulbert, who has removed herself from Cheltenham Ladies College to live in a tent with a homeless busker. "I did not enjoy the atmosphere," said Ms Hulbert, a "capable and intelligent" pupil who now spends her time listening to her boyfriend playing the harmonica. "They tried to make me into something I am not. My confidence took a real bashing."

Personally, I think she should be applauded. If I had been able to find a homeless busker I would have left my school like a shot. Because a prestigious, private school education is not an advantage; it is something foisted upon girls by parents who often couldn't afford to go there themselves.

They see it as a magic mixer in which their shy, scruffy 11-year-old will be transformed into a highly qualified, confident young woman, at ease in her newly elevated social circles. But the reality is often more repressive than a South American dictatorship, contains more confined hysteria than an ambulance at a Boyzone concert, and fosters sadism between girls that would open an Amnesty file.

The regulations are often perverse. At my school girls had to walk in a clockwise direction to classrooms, even if it meant circling the school. Any attempt to swim against the tide, even if the room you wanted was just a few feet behind you, was met with a barked reproof. Windows only opened six inches - presumably because Britain's finest young women might mistakenly fall out. And woe betide the girl who wore her indoor shoes outdoors or black tights with her summer skirt.

And I am not alone. One friend tells of her school in the Wirral where girls were forbidden to eat ice cream in uniform. There were, however, no specific restrictions on snogging the boys from the local school. Guess what oral fixtures were popular in the Wirral?

The more perverse the rules, the more inventive the means of subverting them. The stricter the guidelines on uniform, the higher the skirt will be hitched. Which is essentially what Christine Hulbert is doing. But her parents should not despair. For a start, a homeless busker will win Ms Hulbert never-ending admiration from her peer group. When I was met at the gates by a roofer, my credibility went about as high as his ladder. And free spirits are the cause du jour. Swampy is probably digging just to escape the hordes of middle-class schoolgirls who want to run off with him.

And how many girls fancy at 26 the kind of men they desired at 16? Within a year, probably, Ms Hulbert will have left him behind, and judging by the coverage, will end up with a lucrative career in media relations.

If nothing else, Ms Hulbert's parents should consider the pounds 13,000-a-year they ploughed into her education a sound investment. All the best people have run away from school at some point. And isn't an independent spirit the very thing that schools such as these promise to foster?