Cocooned in the depths of Britain's countryside sit many of our most prestigious independent fee-paying schools. These bastions of Victorian architecture and benevolence offer a special education to those who can afford to pay: more than pound;15,000 a year to board at the school for less than 300 pupils in Wales where I worked as assistant housemistress.
When I accepted the job, I felt I needed new direction in my career. I had been a secondary English teacher for 20 years but had no previous experience of being "mother" to more than 30 eight to 15-year-olds. My information on boarding schools came from the novels of Enid Blyton, and Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings series.
The job description in brief was "to assist with and contribute to the supervision and care of the boarders, with particular responsibility for the health, clothing and general wellbeing of those in the house. To carry out such other related duties as may be reasonably required from time to time. within the general aim of the post."
Child protection legislation and national boarding standards have put paid to cruel practices of schools such as Dotheboys Hall, immortalised in Nicholas Nickleby, but the treatment of housemistresses seems rooted in Dickensian times. What is expected is selfless devotion to the establishment and the school community.
I arrived sure of only two things: I would be paid pound;12,000 a year and be off duty from Wednesday noon to Friday noon each week. Full board and accommodation was advertised as included, but the reality was that the boarding house was usually let in the holidays, so I had to rely on relatives to give me somewhere to live.
My status was vague. Sometimes I was "housemistress with equal responsibility," meaning I took full responsibility for the boarding house when the senior housemistress was away and reported to the headteacher. Then without prior notice, I was demoted to assistant housemistress.
From Monday to Wednesday my day began at 6.30am with a rushed bath. It was the only time I had access to enough hot water as the heating and hot water were turned off while the girls were in school.
From 7.10am the 37 eight to 15-year-old girls in my boarding house were woken either by my manager or myself. Dressed in traditional uniform, they appeared for a breakfast of juice, cereal, cold meats, cheese and toast by 8am. With the other housemistress on duty (there were usually two of us working at any one time), I fed the dishwasher, made toast to order, topped up jugs of water, mopped spills, answered the phone, hunted for uniform, dispensed medicines, made announcements, noted repairs, and said grace. By 8.30am the girls, checked for neatness, left the house for school.
Some girls treated me like a maid in a five-star hotel, complaining if the toast was too brown or slow in arriving. One called for coffee from the breakfast room, adding: "Are you deaf?" and "Are - you - hard - of - hear - ing?" When told off for being rude, she replied: "But you're a housemistress."
Others remained fiercely loyal to the other housemistress whom they adored, harbouring grudges when I enforced rules, and challenging my authority.
On the whole, though, most of the girls were polite and co-operative, whether the daughters of Hong Kong government officials, millionaires or Forces personnel serving overseas.
From 8.30am my morning was filled with domestic duties. Breakfast cleared, dishwasher loaded, tables wiped. The girls' personal laundry was washed three times a week, supplies for breakfasts and suppers were fetched in my car.
Girls who were sick had to be tended in bed and the phone answered. Could I supply details of flight times, or numbers for planned activities? Would I make arrangements for temporary boarders, book taxis, draw up an agenda for a house meeting, write minutes, sort out the files and update the noticeboard? Post had to be collected from school and forms photocopied.
I ran up and down stairs between laundries and phone calls, washing, drying, folding, stacking mountains of clothes. Houseplants were watered, soiled beds changed, others made up for new boarders. Every fortnight, the dirty bedding had to be counted and bagged. Weekend activities had to be planned, publicised and shopped for. Daily handover notes had to be written as well as a report for the weekly house staff meeting.
At noon I stopped for lunch if I was back in-house. I should then have been off duty until 4pm, but if required, had to remain at the disposal of the executive housemistress to show visitors around or accompany boarders.
After tea at 5pm, even with two housemistresses on duty, we rarely sat down. Supplies had to be carted from the school kitchen and apples polished. Prep had to be supervised until 7.30pm, the register taken, the whereabouts of girls at weekends ascertained, under 11s' bath time organised, groups seen off to evening activities, disputes settled, medicines and first aid administered, girls fetched to the phone for parents, "spread" (supper) set out at 7.30pm, cleared away and breakfast set up.
At 8.30pm "putting to bed" started. Finally, by about 10.45pm, unless anyone chose to be a nuisance, there was peace and we could retire.
The working day started later at the weekends, but lasted longer. We could be on duty from 7.30am until after 11.00pm if required to escort a trip. Girls had to be accompanied to lunch and tea and a special supper prepared on Saturday evenings. Staff rotas did not specify hours of work, only who was on duty.
I rarely worked less than 60 hours a week and was on call at nights. It was exhausting and stressful. I slept a lot in my time off. And yet, except where housemistresses are academic staff sleeping over in senior boarding houses, or not required to do domestic work, my own situation is not unique. Last November an assistant housemistress at Malvern College accepted an out-of-court settlement (see panel on page 27) after working more than 100 hours per week for less than pound;4 per hour.
After six months, despite repeated requests, I still had no written contract. I was in the dark about holiday entitlement, sick pay and grievance procedures. My conditions of work had become intolerable. I was an emotional wreck and I resigned.
It is difficult to believe that such conditions exist today, but the job is isolating. What is needed is collective agreements covering pay and conditions for housemistresses and the backing of a strong union
Jennifer Kay is a pseudonym
All work, no play
Malvern College paid pound;12,000 compensation last year to an assistant housemistress earning less than the minimum wage to work more than 100 hours a week.
Barbara White's hourly rate of pound;3.75 was well below the minimum wage of pound;4.50 an hour and she was required to be on call for any problems faced by the girls in her care for six nights a week.
Her job included locking the girls' boarding house at 10.30pm and opening at 6.30am, six days a week, including Sundays. During the day she was responsible for the supervision of the domestic and catering support staff for the house, which took 30 boarders.
Mrs White, who started work at the school in 1991, said her duties left her so exhausted that she was forced to take catnaps at every possible moment of free time.
When the school refused her request to cut the number of her on-call nights from six to five a week, she took her case to an employment tribunal, supported by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).
The school, which charges fees of more than pound;25,000 a year, agreed to an out-of-court settlement. A spokesman for Malvern College said that assistant housemistresses received a "competitive salary".
John Richardson, ATL's national officer for independent schools, said: "It's very much a cultural thing and I don't think Malvern College is the exception. Many housemistresses are frightened to complain because they fear losing their jobs."
He advised anyone who suspected employment laws were being broken at their school to contact their union.
A bad deal?
Housemistresses and masters are employed by private schools to take responsibility for boarding houses and look after the pupils there.
There is no public data on how many of them there are, nor how much they get paid on average. Schools tend not to advertise salaries, and contracts can be vague about the hours employees will be expected to work in return.
Being outside of the state sector, housemistresses do not have the benefit of a national pay scale. Where pay is disclosed, it is rarely more than pound;16,000 a year, but board is usually included.