Damned fine gals;Books

29th January 1999 at 00:00
As one of Britain's top girls' schools celebrates its 75th birthday with the publication of an affectionate history, Hilary Wilce questions the relevance today of the exclusivity that has outlived the St Trinian's image in Benenden and its sister schools

BENENDEN: a great company. By David Souden. Available from the school shop tel: 01580 242029 - pound;34 including p amp; p.

What, exactly, are girls' boarding schools for? It's a question we might have trouble answering these days, but back in the 1920s, when three young teachers were eating cream buns in the stationery cupboard at Wycombe Abbey School and planning the great "adventure" of founding their own school, they were perfectly clear.

Misses Bird, Hindle and Sheldon wanted to "create a happy school, with personal integrity and service for others always in mind, and where everyone would be given the chance to follow her own bent, whether it was in academic or physical activities, or in the more practice side of life". That's a mission statement which would now fit almost any school, but in the early days of girls' schooling it was forward-thinking in its emphasis on happiness and diversity.

In September 1923 they opened their school and a term later moved it to Viscount Rothermere's grand estate, in the Weald of Kent. There it became Benenden, now known to fee-paying parents as one of the country's top girls' schools, and to the wider world as the school which educated Princess Anne in the 1960s.

To us, such girls' schools seem intrinsically funny, with their culture of "pashes" on other girls and mistresses, of pageants, midnight feasts and lacrosse matches. St Trinian's rises inexorably to mind, and it is to David Souden's credit that, in writing this commissioned history, he doesn't side-step this, any more than he does the financial and staffing difficulties that have beset the school over the decades - or the fact that, while many pupils have fond memories of the place, others do not.

Yet this book is no probing analysis of boarding-school culture, but an affectionate history of an often quirky institution. It tells how the school decamped during the war to Newquay, where the girls had sweets dropped into their cape hoods by American GIs while an heroic Free French pilot gave his life to prevent a V1 rocket destroying the school's Kent home; how jeans first came to Benenden in the Seventies; and how the 1987 hurricane devastated the school grounds.

It covers the halcyon days of the Thirties, the royal patronage of the Sixties and the modernisations of the Nineties. There are also plenty of diverting photographs - in one, a rack of bloomered Wycombe Abbey girls hang on their 1902 gymnasium bars like turkeys in a butcher's shop.

But why should anyone but a Senior (the name for an old Bendendenian) have any interest in all this? First because the book, in giving prominence to the three women who founded and ran the school for 30 years, reminds today's educated women what a debt they owe to such pioneers. These women were born into a world where the British Medical Association could state with authority that "continuous mental effort is a danger to young women". They were neither feminists nor social reformers. but within the culture of their time they were true radicals, aiming not only to give the girls who passed through their hands a good education but to do it with kindness and compassion, not to mention a little bell-ringing, duck-keeping or carpentry on the side.

The second reason is because to read the history of a school like Bendenden is to remember again just how fast and furious have been the social changes of the 20th century. In the Twenties very few girls went to university - more went on to be presented at court. Pupils were encouraged to do good works in the local villages but forbidden to have contact with the hop-pickers from the East End. War changed everything, and then the Fifties and Sixties saw further massive changes, with girls' ambitions growing apace. The school came under all kinds of pressures, not only to boost exam results but also to put up fees and embark on ambitious building works.

In 1950, Department of Education inspectors felt Benenden girls were underachieving, although they praised their "gaeity and poise, a zest and naturalness which are good qualities to take with them into adult life".

Today's pupils still have lots of 'Bendenden Bounce', but along with it far higher career ambitions and better exam results. In some ways they could be seen to have it all - a beautiful school with high academic standards and fabulous facilities. But a darker thread runs beneath this gentle history, and that is the questions of social division and exclusion that schools like Benenden give rise to.

In the Forties, no one thought it odd that girls were taught "to wear a coat and skirt when chairing a WI meeting". Later, many Benenden pupils came to kick against their environment, usually because of the lack of boys, or petty school rules, but occasionally because of its narrow social profile.

One former pupil remembers being one of only three girls in the school who lived north of Hertfordshire. "One friend asked if you could watch Neighbours in the North - I replied that our milk was delivered by horse and cart."

Gillian duCharme, the grammar-school educated current head, due to retire shortly, recounts that the confines of the estate, the male-dominated council, the scruffy school buildings and glum-looking girls added up to "the culture shock of the century" for her when, having taught for 20 years in the United States, she arrived at Benenden to take up the headship in 1985.

Today much has changed, not least because Benenden, like other boarding schools, now houses a rainbow nation of pupils. Yet to see a group of Benenden girls board the train to London, or decant from a coach into a local concert or play, is still to see a clutch of girls come metaphorically blinking out from their rarified parkland into the grime of every day reality.

Is this really the best way for them to grow up? Is it the best thing for society at large? Is an exclusive school like Benenden - for all its obvious fun and gaeity, its hard-working teachers, high achievements and modern bridge-building to the outside world - truly the ideal way to educate girls for the 21st century? Plenty of wealthy parents think it is. In this book David Souden couldn't, of course, possibly comment.

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