I blame Enid Blyton. As a child I devoured her books, becoming particularly enchanted by the boarding school worlds she created in the Malory Towers and Naughtiest Girl series. This combination of tomfoolery, midnight feasts and loyal friendships seemed right up my street so obviously I asked my parents if I could go to boarding school.
Tempted though I’m sure they were, they didn’t pack me off straightaway but when I was doing my GCSEs they said that if I was serious about the whole boarding school thing I could go away for my A levels. A necessary condition was imposed and achieved when I earned a scholarship for half my fees so off I went at age 16 to live in a middle-ranking school for my two years of sixth form.
My education up to that point had been entirely within the state sector and all my ideas about private schools and the people who went to them were a result of the stereotypes delivered through mainstream media. I expected plummy accents, sneering attitudes and a great view of the underside of everyone’s chins as they looked down their noses at me for being from a comprehensive school.
Rocking up on my first day with a nose stud and a massive chip on my shoulder it quickly became clear that I was the one with the attitude problem. As I recall I was one of only a couple of new pupils who’d come from the state sector but as it turned out, the only person who thought it remotely relevant was me; everyone else was far more interested in killing time until the parents left so that they could go and have a smoke behind the pavilion.
Going to boarding school for sixth form meant that I experienced both worlds at an age where I kind of understood what I was looking at. Obviously my experiences are based on one comprehensive and one boarding school, I’m sure other people in other places see different things, but here are some of my observations.
Private school is less tribal. It’s almost like it’s one big tribe, whereas my comp was much more cliquey. All the girls at sixth form wore their beautiful, swishy hair in the same way (a pony tail not quite pulled through the band – they all looked to me like they’d just got out of the shower and not sorted their hair out) and the boys all had Tintin quiffs. Strange brands I’d never seen before were everywhere and rugby shirts were definitely the order of the day.
There was a new language to learn; rusticated, gated, prep, san, exeat, master and the one that caused me the most bother – tab. It took me a while to realise that it meant cigarette so for the first day or two I thought everyone had a massive LSD problem. Oops. None of the teachers, sorry masters, were called by their names either; nicknames abounded and learning which could be used to their faces and which couldn’t was a perilous tightrope that all the new students had to walk.
Was my education better there? Well, my A level results certainly do not remotely reflect what I now know to be my abilities – but educational success is not measured solely in terms of exam results. I learned a pretty big lesson about not prejudging and living in close and constant proximity with others was a timely tolerance-building exercise. Without that school I would never have had the opportunity to sing evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral and St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, I’d probably never have gone to an opera and going from a school that put on a single production each year to one that churned them out at rate of more than one a term provided a wonderful outlet for my dramatic (aka showy-off) tendencies. Students arrived at the school from all over the world and from a massive range of backgrounds – mixing with this huge range of people, and their families, gave me a confidence that has stayed with me into adulthood. (I am also able to handle larger quantities of alcohol than my size and gender would suggest – this is very definitely a legacy from my boarding school days.)
This post was going to be bit of a rant, fighting back at those who lambast private school pupils as though they’ve been handed something on a plate. I didn’t get great A level results because I didn’t work hard enough; my parents paying half of my fees didn’t guarantee anything. It turned into a more affectionate reminiscence, which is telling in itself. It’s not the right avenue for everyone, but for me the combination of educational experiences provided the best and broadest foundation I could possibly get. Toodle-pip!