Watching Channel 4's Big Brother inspired a headteacher to set up his own version of the reality TV show. Now his Year 13s are getting a taste of life after school. Ellen Bennett drops in
Five girls stand around in a kitchen, giggling. Music booms out of a stereo as tonight's chef burns the chicken stir fry and sets off the fire alarm.
Is this an early glimpse of the latest series of Channel 4's Big Brother or a student flat in a big university town? Well, it's a bit of both: the scene is part of an innovative sixth-form flat at Rendcomb College, an independent school in Gloucestershire, and the Year 13 girls are getting their first taste of living away from the watchful eyes of teachers, parents and housemasters.
After watching the first series of Big Brother three years ago, Rendcomb's headteacher, Gerry Holden, was inspired to turn the reality show's format into an educational experience. Hence the sixth-form flat. Single-sex groups of four or five Year 13 pupils each spend a week in it, unsupervised, with a budget of pound;15 per person to shop, cook and feed themselves. As well as getting a glimpse of independence, they're expected to handle a budget, manage their own time and learn to live in close quarters with fellow classmates they may not like.
Sitting in his elegant study in the 344-pupil school's main building - which looks like a stately home set in manicured lawns - Mr Holden explains the unusual motivation behind the flat. "I don't watch Big Brother often, but I saw it and thought, how can we take this idea of young people living together and make it educational? It seems a natural thing to do as this is a time of transition from school to university."
As with the television show, there is plenty of scope for tension. The pupils are not allowed to move in with close friends; they're chosen by the head girl and boy, who will make some allowance for preferences, but it's the social mix that matters. Does this cause problems? Not according to Sarah, Jade, Harriet, Coco and Cindy on their second day in the flat - a five-minute walk from the sixth-form boarding house, and above the sixth-form bar. After an awkward moment, when a teacher has to prompt them to offer their guests a cup of tea, the girls give a guided tour: five small bedrooms, a kitchendining room and a large living room. Although the standard-issue furniture and bare walls give it an institutional feel, it seems more like a flat in university halls than a school boarding house.
"We've been at school together for years, so we know each other pretty well," says Jade. The other girls say life in the flat bears more resemblance to the easy sociability of Channel 4's Friends than the tears and tantrums of Big Brother. But there have been times in the past, they admit, when some of the groups have been a little more cliquey.
For Mr Holden, though, this is all part of the learning experience.
"Socially, it's been interesting," he says. "It's important the pupils realise that in later life they'll have to work and even live with people they may not relate to. The flat extends the practice of what boarding schools do well: the experience of communal living with friends and acquaintances."
With university, jobs and gap years just months away, the pupils are on the verge of independent living anyway. So what do they hope to gain from this brief experience? "Learning to cook," says Harriet, 18. She could do with some lessons in laundry too; on her first night in the house she popped her jeans in the washing machine, only to be told several hours later that she needed to add detergent. "I thought it went in automatically through a tube, like it does in the school laundry."
Even though four of the five girls are boarders, they also expect to learn something new about living with other people. "It feels different, being in a flat," says Sarah. "You're living closer together, and there's no one in charge." They enjoy this independence, but perhaps the most important lesson is budgeting. On their first night together they went to the local supermarket to do the week's shopping, with a budget of pound;75. "We tried to get all the value stuff," says Sarah, "and just a few treats."
Several tubs of gourmet ice-cream later, they were pound;10 overspent with nine items still to pay for. They had the embarrassment of returning food to the shelves and setting their sights a little lower. It's a lesson they won't forget.
Normal school rules apply, but the week-long flatmates do not have to go to prep (supervised study time that usually lasts from 7pm until 9pm).
Instead, they are trusted to organise their own schedules, which don't always go to plan. "It takes real motivation to go and do your work when everyone else is chatting in the kitchen," says Jade. She tells of one group who did no work all week, then spent the next few days desperately catching up. Generally, though, the pupils are supportive of the idea.
If the pupils are tempted to break the rules, they are certainly not going to admit it in front of their housemother, Anna Slark. But they say the rest of the year group tends to visit regularly, using it as a place to hang out. And talk of the boy groups causes some laughter and rolling of eyes as the girls tell of leads from X-Boxes (the latest games console) and crisps all over the floor.
Sharing halls with members of the opposite sex is a well-established fixture of university life, so, in the spirit of trust and fostering independence, has the school ever considered allowing boys and girls to live in the flat together? "It's not on the cards at the moment," says Ms Slark. "We would have to think about it carefully and make sure we had permission from parents."
A dinner party is the highlight of the week. The flat's residents invite one or two of the school staff and their partners and rustle up a culinary delight. This week Harriet has volunteered to play chef and is planning a vegetarian risotto. Determined not to be embarrassed in front of teachers and friends, she practised the dish at home on her last school holiday.
Mr Holden says staff take along a bottle of wine as they would to any dinner party. The food's not bad either. "One brave group of boys even invited the catering manager," he says. "It took courage. But they did well."
The week is clearly an event pupils enjoy and look forward to in the school calendar but, with a well-equipped sixth-form boarding house just around the corner and all the risks of broken rules and angry parents, why does the school bother?
"They've modular exams in June, some in February and coursework throughout the year," says Mr Holden. "They have to jump through all these hoops, so anything that adds a bit of variety and teaches them important lessons must be worthwhile." And, says Ms Slark, by the time they get to the sixth form "they are young adults and we have to try to treat them that way". She admits there are usually more constraints at an independent school - particularly a boarding school - than a state school and points to such innovations as the flat and sixth-form bar as ways of "striking a balance".
Whatever the motivation, for the pupils it provides an important taste of what life might be like in less than a year's time. In this case, the taste is char-grilled.