‘When moth­ers visit to­day’s girls’ board­ing schools, they wish they were go­ing there them­selves’

A rev­o­lu­tion has taken place in girls’ board­ing schools dur­ing the past few decades. An en­vi­ous Ysenda Max­tone Gra­ham re­ports on how lead­ing in­sti­tu­tions turned their for­tunes around to ri­val the top boys’ schools for ex­cel­lence

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The smell of pol­ish on the ban­is­ters, the rhodo­den­drons on the drive, the chapel pews and Gothic door­ways, the fa­mil­iar names on dor­mi­tory doors: re­visit your old school 30, 40 or 50 years later and some as­pects will have you lurch­ing straight back into your 13-year-old self.

In other ways, the place will be barely recog­nis­able. Those old cor­ri­dors, pews and door­ways are now merely the hub of the vast, fa­cil­i­ties-filled em­pire of fun and high achieve­ment that the place has turned into. Look out of the win­dow onto the grounds where you did French skip­ping on those bor­ing Satur­day after­noons and you’ll see a state-ofthe-art run­ning track, a vast the­atre and drama stu­dio, huge science and art blocks, a lux­u­ri­ous heated pool, a shop, three ho­tel-like board­ing houses and a well­ness cen­tre.

The din­ing room where you chomped your way through gristly stew and stodge has been re­placed by a coun­try-club-style buf­fet with restau­rant-stan­dard hot dishes, a pasta bar, sal­ads wor­thy of Ot­tolenghi and a choice of still or sparkling wa­ter. What’s hap­pened?

By the end of the 1970s and through the 1980s, many girls’ board­ing schools were strug­gling to keep num­bers up. Par­ents were (at long last) be­gin­ning to no­tice—and care— that their daugh­ters were not be­ing as rig­or­ously or in­spir­ingly ed­u­cated as their sons. Lead­ing boys’ schools, such as Marl­bor­ough, West­min­ster

and King’s Can­ter­bury, started open­ing their doors to girls in the sixth form, si­phon­ing off the cream from girls’ board­ing schools.

These charm­ing es­tab­lish­ments at the end of long gravel drives had to adapt or die—and many died. Some were sad at the demise of those charm­ingly am­a­teur­ish places that were more about form­ing char­ac­ter and man­ners than hon­ing the in­tel­lect; oth­ers said good rid­dance to the sweetly hope­less, an­ti­quated teach­ing, the petty rules, the mean ma­trons and the old ladies in cardi­gans who had been in charge for far too long and whose lack of aca­demic am­bi­tion for their pupils ren­dered their girls un­fit for any role but wife, mother and chate­laine of a large coun­try house.

The sur­viv­ing schools—to­day’s daz­zling ex­am­ples—are the log­i­cal out­come of that rev­o­lu­tion. There are far, far fewer of them. In the 1930s, there were 22 girls’ board­ing schools in the Worces­ter­shire town of Malvern alone. Now, there’s only one: Malvern St James, an amal­gam of four pre­vi­ous schools that has a mix of board­ing and day pupils.

You only need to ex­am­ine the web­sites of to­day’s es­tab­lish­ments to see how hard they have to work at mar­ket­ing: trum­pet­ing the num­ber of A* grades, Oxbridge of­fers, Olympians, the girls who took part in the Model United Na­tions. It’s a tough mar­ket.

There’s nearly al­ways a pho­to­graph of a girl wear­ing safety gog­gles in a chem­istry lab and look­ing re­ally ex­cited. It im­plies: ‘We are ut­terly mod­ern in our to­tal be­lief in the equal­ity of the sexes. Our girls love the ed­u­ca­tion we of­fer, par­tic­u­larly the sciences, and your daugh­ter will be phys­i­cally and aca­dem­i­cally safe with us.’

To sur­vive, these schools have had to keep ex­pand­ing their fa­cil­i­ties, which meant years of cranes and hard-hat ar­eas. To­day’s suc­cess­ful

head­mistress needs to have over­seen at least one £3 mil­lion build­ing project to earn her stripes. It seems to be a self-per­pet­u­at­ing cy­cle: the more you build, the more par­ents ex­pect and the higher the fees—and the harder you need to mar­ket to at­tract par­ents will­ing to pay those fees. In the 1980s, board­ing prices were, on av­er­age, one-sev­enth of a mod­er­ately well-off per­son’s pre-tax salary; now, they’re a quar­ter or more just for one child.

No won­der, then, that many schools have taken their wares abroad. Wealthy Rus­sian and Chi­nese par­ents dream of a Bri­tish board­ing ed­u­ca­tion in an idyl­lic set­ting for their chil­dren. Heads go on trips to Rus­sia to drum up busi­ness and pairs of per­sua­sive, smart-suited Chi­nese women—‘ed­u­ca­tional agents’— visit Bri­tish schools, in­structed

by par­ents to place their daugh­ters in them.

It takes a cer­tain strength of char­ac­ter for a school to re­sist this on­slaught—each new pupil equals another £34,000 (at least) per year—but it can be self-de­feat­ing; over­seas par­ents pre­fer not to send their daugh­ters to an overly in­ter­na­tional school be­cause they want them to be ed­u­cated with Bri­tish girls and some Bri­tish girls are put off by find­ing Man­darin the first lan­guage of the chang­ing rooms.

In the ‘old days’, the em­pha­sis in girls’ board­ing schools, even the top ones, was on pre­par­ing pupils for a life of ser­vice to oth­ers; now, it’s on em­pow­er­ment. Girls are, rightly, in­stilled with the be­lief that they can go on to achieve any­thing if they work hard enough. The words ‘If you be­lieve in your­self, any­thing is pos­si­ble’ are painted in green ital­ics on the din­ing-room walls at Queen Anne’s Caver­sham in Berk­shire, among other mo­ti­va­tional slo­gans. Last year, at Wy­combe Abbey, only nine girls out of the whole year group didn’t ap­ply to Oxbridge. That’s the way things are go­ing.

The real change, how­ever, is that, when prospec­tive moth­ers visit to­day’s girls’ board­ing schools, they wish, deep down, they were go­ing there them­selves.

Ysenda Max­tone Gra­ham is the au­thor of ‘Terms & Con­di­tions: Life in Girls’ Board­ing-schools, 1939–1979’ (Slightly Foxed)

High-jump­ing at Downe House (top) and wind­surf­ing at St Mary’s Calne (above). Many girls’ schools have a strong fo­cus on sport and ath­let­ics

State of the Arts: the best is now an ex­pec­ta­tion, whether it’s St Mary’s Calne’s stu­dio (above), Tudor Hall’s can­teen (be­low) or the lat­est learn­ing tech­nol­ogy at Chel­tenham Ladies’ (bot­tom)

Gone are the days of gris­tle and stew: girls at Queen Mar­garet’s (be­low) and Downe House (right) gen­uinely en­joy board­ing-school life

With first-class the­atres, girls’ schools such as St Mary’s Calne (above) can pro­duce shows that would be the envy of the West End

Smells like teen spirit: whether it’s rock­ing the stage at St Mary’s As­cot

(left) or re­lax­ing af­ter lessons at Queen Mar­garet’s (above), a well­rounded ex­pe­ri­ence is what par­ents and stu­dents are seek­ing

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