Education: A rave, a giggle and a grope: Michael Edwards on the release of urges at the boarding school dance

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The Independent Online
ON A dark and bitter Saturday evening sweeping coach headlights illuminate a Georgian mansion. Suddenly a small group of teenage girls clad in scanty evening dresses flies across the gravel, shrilling screams of adulation.

The objects of their desire are half-a-dozen boys, who have been separated from their pining girlfriends for all of three weeks. The remainder of the coach-load of girls watch the passionate reunions with envy.

The girls have arrived for one of the regular dances laid on for boarding-school pupils and many days of pent-up youthful urges are about to be released.

A single-sex boarding school's remote location and work-hard, play-hard ethos can make some pupils feel they are missing out on the last remnants of the permissive society. The Government may want such schools to achieve academic results, parents may want discipline, but often what the pupils want is sex.

Sixth formers who are old enough to be married and parents are likely to scorn schools that fail to provide contact with the opposite sex. Without such events as the dances, isolated schools would risk hastening the exodus to co- educational establishments, hitting the balance sheet and threatening the schools' survival. So all over the country, boarding-school pupils are bussed to events that appear to cross the animal- herding of One Man and His Dog with the blatant exhibitionism of Blind Date.

Short on romance and heavy on groping, the dances feature mating rituals that may fascinate an anthropologist but which horrify teachers. Few staff find any appeal in a couple of glasses of wine and a salad in return for a 7pm-to-midnight stint at the end of a six-day week, with moral responsibility for adolescents often intent only on debauchery. After one fiasco of a dance, a headmaster took the opportunity to ban them for a

decade.

Music, buffet and drink are the basic ingredients in the recipe, with live bands added to taste. Organisers make the occasion as upmarket as possible, because although a black-tie ball can degenerate into Hooray Henry loutism, and the young ladies may not always behave as Miss Jean Brodie would have liked, an evening that starts as a T-shirt-and-jeans disco is even more likely to disintegrate into a brawl.

Alcohol is either banned or limited, usually doled out in the form of a sticky punch tasting like cough mixture. However revellers can usually hide sufficient drink about their persons to drown their inhibitions and the head's rose garden may end up littered with empty gin and vodka bottles.

Generally three or four schools must participate in an event in order to even out the sexes and without school uniform, no one is sure who anyone is. This makes it easier for any Milk Tray adventurers who want to scale the walls in search of a lady. Staff patrol the grounds, like Colditz guards, trying to confine the revellers. Powerful beams shine into bushes and behind the gardener's shed. One headmistress pokes into corners with a broomstick.

For groups of revellers without previous liaisons to renew, the evening starts with a posturing cold war between the sexes followed by a remarkable thaw. Clusters of girls whisper, giggle and frequently visit the loo. Boys circle, eye up the talent and strut.

There is usually a loner. He believes that hair-gel and a curled lip have made him irresistible to women. Every flick of the hair, every step he takes has been carefully choreographed. As inanimate and immaculate as a mannequin he speaks to no one, explaining next morning that 'all the girls were old hags' or 'frigid'. Girls dismiss him as immature.

Jackets and ties are discarded, high heels kicked off. Relationships are developing, though some of the dresses make the girls look like gold-tasselled table lampshades or foil-wrapped poultry. Meanwhile, the boys' sweaty dress shirts, some more floral than Kew Gardens, are as damp and creased as washing on a line.

As midnight approaches anyone, including the disc jockey,

is fair game. Younger members

of staff may be embarrassingly

propositioned.

Staff patrols are increased as the musical tempo slows. Bodies are so intertwined that it is hard to tell who is who. Some are already back on the coach, bored or disappointed. Others are missing. One boy became known as Nick Faldo having allegedly 'scored' on the second green of the adjoining golf course and a girl was reported to have lost her virginity in a nearby graveyard.

Then there is the exchanging of telephone numbers. Of course, no one has a pen or paper, except one boy who offers it to a senior master who got on exceptionally well with the headmistress host.

Schools make little of these occasions. There is no prize on Speech Day for the Girl Most Likely To, and no photo in the school magazine of the Lad's Lad of the Season. Memories of adolescent flings are best swept away with the morning-after debris of cocktail sausages in the grand piano and Twiglets on the crash mats.

Teachers, like parents, can find it difficult to accept that their charges are growing up. The noise, sexuality and freedom of the dances may unsettle staff used to the uniform and discipline of academic life. But boarding schools must allow young adults to behave as young adults. Their embarrassments and indiscretions are as inevitable as mistakes in the classroom and on the sports field. Learning to cope with social situations is an unavoidable part of the 'extra' curriculum.

The author has taught at several independent schools.

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