Debate: Boarding schools are the stuff that cliches are made of. Perhaps it's time to revise our opinions...
Sunday 06 September 1998
There's nothing like after-lights-out fun and laid-back teachers, says Suzi Feay
Yes, there were desperately sad aspects to boarding-school life, from emotionally deprived, thumb-sucking sixth-formers to little boys who accidentally called matron "mummy", but in spite of the privations, my own stretch on the bleak Yorkshire moors was almost entirely positive and enjoyable.
If every child had a radiantly happy relationship with its parents, being plucked from this Eden would clearly be cruel and traumatic. Who are these harsh parents who willingly pack off their children? But what critics of the boarding system don't understand is that for many children the chance to get away from their parents is unimaginable bliss. Discipline at my home had disintegrated into storms of hysterical emotion: screaming, shouting, crying, door-banging (and that was just my mum). The unemotional firmness of the teachers worked a miracle on me. I was still rebellious; I still thought any imposition of rules and regulations meant a virtual police state, but at least I didn't spend a good portion of every day wishing I was dead.
It's not all Dotheboys Hall and Mallory Towers. My own establishment was co-ed, and had a smoking room and bar. "We aim to offer a social education," was the Head's boast, which was just as well. Lessons were ramshackle and rambling, but who cared about that when you could run on the moors like Heathcliff and Cathy, or go sailing, or climb trees, or watch Last Tango in Paris with the film club, ordraw naked male models in art class.
The pupils went beyond the Enid Blyton and Evelyn Waugh stereotypes, too. Ironically, making money the main criterion for entry meant that the school population represented a wide range of experiences and abilities, including pupils who would by today's standards probably be excluded from a more orthodox establishment. A high degree of anti-social behaviour can be tolerated when dad's paying the bill. It all added to the fascinating mix.
Many of the pupils came from overseas: Fouad from Beirut arrived needing treatment for shrapnel wounds from a bomb explosion. With a high proportion of pupils passing through duty-free every term, after-lights-out alcohol was plentiful, and occasionally something stronger than Marlboro wafted out of the smoking room, but we also enjoyed the formality of the bar, open for sixth-formers on Saturday nights and, most civilised, for one hour before Sunday lunch. Cans of beer and measures of Dubonnet were dispensed by the French master, who, every so often would mutter something about the tab.
Punishments were severe but arbitrary: caned for breaking bounds to buy chips, but made to pick litter for shooting a village child with an air gun. More effective was informal discipline handed down by the "screws". Anyone caught bullying was likely to be dragged to the gym after dark for a "bouncing", while tender-hearted Diana Spencer types were on hand to cuddle and console forlorn tinies.
Okay, it was pretty comfortless - minimal heating, awful food, no privacy, hard beds - but I have never had such fun, or made such friends; and I like to think there's a residual toughness, cheerfulness and self-reliance in me which had its origin in a chilly dormitory on the Yorkshire moors.
Stop repressing emotions, and allow a little tenderness, says Luke Meddings
W H Auden said the strongest reason he had for rejecting Fascism was that he had experienced it at boarding school in Norfolk. Some commentators have characterised this as a flimsy basis for principled opposition to the Axis Powers, but I think he had a point.
After all, the ethos of our great boarding schools was forged in the white heat of the British Empire. Under cover of creating Victorian gentlemen, the schools created a super-breed of colonial administrators who would betray no emotion under pressure overseas. They were expected to betray no emotion, either, when they held their wives or surveyed their children.
That deep emotions were nevertheless stirred in foreign parts can be deduced from the numerous plaques in our public school chapels which commemorate fallen sons killed whilst performing their duty. Everyone ended up lying back and thinking of England, one way or another. So, how far do these repressed emotional values still hold?
I saw a television documentary on British boarding schools recently which gave me a start. One particular shot of a middle-aged man walking away from the camera down a narrow corridor suddenly made me want to cry.
It uncovered something I had buried in my heart. You were supposed to be able to trust these middle-aged men, but you couldn't. They made out they were like your dad, but they weren't. And at an age when you need a little love and affection, all you got at the vulnerable end of the day was backs going down corridors. They weren't bad men, but they weren't half as good as they were made out to be.
What was it like being inside? For many, it was nothing more sinister than an opportunity to spend several years listening to progressive rock in mild discomfort. For some, it was like Decline and Fall staged, rather unsuccessfully, by Jean Genet. But for all of us, the message was the same: take enough shit at the start and you can give it out later.
I once taught foreign students at a residential summer school at one of our most prestigious boarding-schools. Again, the after-shock hit me hard: moving around that dark, shabby and entirely typical building with its ancient silver cups and wall-to-wall Victorian team photos, was like being trapped in a nauseous labyrinth of lost youth and unallowed tenderness.
Now, meeting other dads at parties for our nursery-age children, the question sometimes arises: would you send your kids to boarding school? The moral force of our standpoint is slightly undermined by our obvious inability to afford it. But no, we wouldn't.
Thousands, however, always will. There is only one possible solution: to discreetly bomb our public schools as they lie empty in the month of August. It would be an act of the greatest moral - not to mention architectural - justice. A fish rots from the head, and so it is with our socity: get rid of the public schools, the mainstay of our class-based society, and the body might flourish. Naturally, you might end up with something equally bad, but at least all those creepy old team photos would be gone. And the world would smell less of cabbage and carbolic soap.
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