Colditz for kids, or dorms of delight?
September is a time of picking blackberries, packing away sun hats and getting back to reality after the summer. But for me, as for many who went to boarding school, it will forever be associated with packing suitcases, sewing name tapes, polishing shoes and emotional goodbyes on the crunchy gravel of the school drive. I would struggle not to cry as I hugged my parents before spending 12 weeks away, their photographs at my bedside and the pale-blue airmail letters my only links with home.
Once at school I pushed home to the back of my mind. While surrounding duvets would tremble with the sobs of homesick girls, I don’t recall crying. In fact, the 10 years I spent at boarding school from the age of eight were mainly happy. When I look back, I’m surprised by how content I was in what, on reflection, were bizarre circumstances.
My prep school looked idyllic, a beautiful Jacobean mansion set in acres of Dorset fields where fat ponies grazed. In the summer we could climb the large cedar tree and ride across the surrounding hills. All very Enid Blyton.
But it had some eccentricities. The lavatories had no doors, and we had to share baths. The food was abysmal: wizened fruit, liver so tough you could scarcely cut it and, on Fridays, “rubbish pie” consisting of all the leftovers from the week, including eggshell and baked beans, topped with old cheese.
I was permanently hungry and would steal horse feed from the stables. The headmistress taught riding and Latin. If you failed to conjugate your verbs you were made to hop in the corner reciting them until you got it right. Tuck was forbidden. At Sunday lunch we got one boiled sweet and had to curtsey to the headmistress’s mother. And yet I loved it, although many friends were deeply unhappy and still shudder at the mention of the school, calling it “Colditz for kids”.
I was reasonably content, too, at my senior school, another all-girls boarding establishment, although I found it hardest to be away from home at the ages of 13 to 15. Those early years of adolescence are difficult for everyone.
I would have loved to go home in the evenings, to offload the stresses or triumphs of the day to my parents, who, unlike my friends, had the perspective and experience to offer sound advice. Confiding in my housemistress never occurred to me. She had 49 other hormonal teenage girls in her care and the ethos was “sort it out yourself”. Boarders were supposed to be tough, self-sufficient.
Despite some misgivings, when my husband (mostly a happy boarder) and I began thinking of senior schools for our son and daughter, now aged 11 and nine, we visited half a dozen boarding schools, some that have flexible boarding, and others that allow pupils home only for exeats and half-term.
Naturally, all emphasised the high quality of “pastoral care” for boarders. “Houseparents” are available for a chat along with counsellors, tutors, matrons who dispense cuddles and cocoa for the homesick, cosy dormitories and “takeaway But is it right to expect children to take responsibility at an early age? And does it actually work?
Personally, I feel that the routine and convenience of boarding school, where everything is on tap and you never travel independently, made me institutionalised. At university I envied those people who had been to day schools. They had travelled by bus, had Saturday jobs – they had engaged with the real world, and had a far better idea of how it worked. I also worry that boarding breeds insularity and a pressure to conform.
The lack of what psychiatrists call a “secure base” – a loving home to come back to each night – can breed insecurity. There is a growing awareness of this problem.
I may change my mind when my children are 16, which is perhaps a more natural age for children to acquire some independence but, for now, my old school trunk will stay in the attic.
The schools we liked best all offer day places. For some families, boarding may be the right choice. But it is not so, I feel, for ours. Yes, the travel may be tiring for the children and they may not have en suite bathrooms, but they will have their mum and dad. They’re not ready to leave the nest, and I certainly don’t want the nest to be empty.
Hell’s belles: Annabel Venning, below, was made to conjugate Latin verbs while hopping - something that wouldn’t be out of place at St Trinian’s