Let's toast this hotbed of real-life education

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
THEY say that Harry Potter is making boarding schools more popular. I'm not so sure. I reckon that the lure of Quidditch, Transfiguration and Butterbeer is still outweighed by the older dreads of Thomas Hughes' dangerous classic, Tom Brown's Schooldays. A wonderful novel, but it seems to have projected on to the average British psyche an image of any residential school as being a hotbed of roasting, bum-freezers, fagging and enforced physical bonding loosely disguised as"sport".

This fictitious and unfair portrayal is only compounded by Enid Blyton's painting of boarding schools as imposing (yet always thoroughly jolly and smashing) institutions seething with machiavellian, tweed-clad hockey mistresses of questionable sexuality.

Now is the time to set the record straight. It brings me great excitement, people, to report that I have attended a full-boarding, co-educational school for the past five years and have never used the phrase "jolly hockey sticks" or been, as it were, fagged.

To date, my buttocks remain mercifully free of the imprints of any kind of toasting implement. And since one horrific brush with a bouncing, lycra-clad gym teacher, I have not been made to dress up in ridiculous shorts and hurl myself onto anyone else's torso. Indeed, the nearest I have come to physical overexertion was a dash to the supermarket in a frantic bid for the last tube of cheese-and-onion-flavoured Pringles.

Well, now we've established what boarding school isn't, we should look at what it actually is.

First and foremost, it's an education. Not always the statistics-bound, anally retentive, calculated education that OFSTED would have us believe that we need, but a real education. An education in co-operation, independence, and yes, discipline (note to social services: I mean that in the nicest possible way). All of this is complemented by an environment directed towards serious academic study. Honestly, you even have to do prep without the TV on.

Secondly, boarding is often a personal challenge - a challenge initially to adapt to alien surroundings, a challenge to form working relationships with people who you would rather disembowel with a meat-cleaver, and a challenge to function alongside both Oxbridge-bound boffinsand social miscreants with an IQ 10 points short of a cheeseburger.

Technically, then, a boarding-school upbringing should bring out all the qualities we need - resilience, adaptability and co-operation. So why are fewer parents enrolling their sprogs in such schools?

Well, a culture of suspicion has built up around the idea of "sending one's children away." Don't worry, though - we keep coming back, for very long holidays, and we phone all the time.

Then there is the belief that awful things happen in boarding schools. But believe me, your kids are oppressively safe in the hands of the sainted social services. I was recently subjected to an inspection interview by the said guardians of our welfare, being quizzed as to whether I have been whipped, thrashed, beaten, spoken to harshly or had any particularly disturbing experiences involving poultry. Nothing escapes them.

There also seems to be an idea that, as far as co-ed boarding is concerned, living in close proximity to members of the opposite sex is by no means "healthy", and that us poor, tragic, debauched boarders are spending our every waking moment fornicating like bunnies.

Oh please. As if we'd have time. And anyway, having savoured on many occasions the sweet aroma of a boy's freshly-used football sock and been in frighteningly close proximity to post-rugby armpits I, personally, don't find it too difficult to suppress the urge to invite one into the sack for a rollicking good game of Bury the Sausage. What on earth gave anyone the idea that proximity to 400 teenage boys is an aphrodisiac?

I am painfully aware that boarding schools are seen as the refuge of the wealthy upper-classes, but there is no reason that they should be. My school, because of the way it is funded, happily accommodates children from all backgrounds and incomes. Perhaps we should have more state boarding-schools, with plenty to do, instead of some of the more pointless and depressing youth services. The teenage boarder is a dying breed, but it is not too late to save it.

Now, please excuse me, but I believe there is someone coming up behind me with a toasting fork.

Rose Heiney, aged 16, is a lower-sixth pupil at the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, Suffolk

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