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The dining room where you chomped your way through gristly stew and stodge has been replaced by a country-club-style buffet with restaurant-standard hot dishes, a pasta bar, salads worthy of Ottolenghi and a choice of still or sparkling water.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