It’s no surprise that Terms and Conditions, Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s book about girls’ boarding schools (Slightly Foxed, £17.50), appeared in the Christmas stockings of quite a few Good Schools Guide writers, but despite its rather niche subject matter this beautifully produced little book has also been something of a hit with the wider reading public.
Ms Maxtone Graham defines her book’s parameters very carefully, claiming one of the main reasons 1979 is the cut-off point for her study is because it was ‘the advent of the duvet’. That 30+ year buffer also provides protection from any accusations of promoting or indeed libelling the featured schools, many of which are still going strong today.
The joy of the book – and the sadness – comes from the voices of former pupils. The author lets them tell their own stories of war time deprivation, benign (and savage) eccentricity, devastating homesickness, petty rules and educational anarchy. Letters home were censored, bullying and social snobbery went unchecked; girls were used as unpaid labour – mopping floors and cleaning windows under the guise of learning domestic skills. This went on in even the most exclusive schools (‘You mustn’t ask a housemaid to do a job if you yourself don’t know how it’s done’).
Schooling for girls was not considered as important as it was for their brothers (several of Maxtone Graham’s older interviewees came from families who had hitherto employed governesses). The belief that ‘too much education’ rendered women unmarriageable persisted, even into the 1960s, and little attention was paid to the academic credentials of a girls’ school. Maxtone Graham recounts how fathers would choose boarding schools for their daughters on the basis of social, rather than academic reputation, believing that spending a few years in an Elizabethan manor house would be sufficient to prepare them for a good marriage. With a few pioneering exceptions such as Cheltenham Ladies’ College most girls’ boarding schools did not expect their pupils to go to university. Even fewer taught science – there were no laboratory facilities, not even a Bunsen burner, at some schools until the
1970s. It’s painful to read some of the stories of thwarted ambition and unrealised potential.
Some former pupils pay tribute to inspirational teachers (very often English teachers) and the tireless dedication of ‘spinster’ headmistresses; others still shudder at the tyranny of enforced team games. What comes across most strongly is the resourcefulness, resilience and lifelong friendships that came out of frozen hot water bottles, terrible food and sitting on radiators ‘planning subversive things to do’.
What fertile - if disturbing - ground these schools would have been for Good Schools Guide reviewers. Terrible food (that had to be consumed with perfect table manners), freezing dormitories, persistent running away and, as a consequence of the latter, corporal punishment. But was something lost when so many small schools finally ‘faded away’ in the 1980s? Perhaps. As Maxtone Graham puts it: ‘The worst of the hopelessness has gone, but so have the best of the eccentricity and the most well-meaning of the amateurishness.’ And some things endure - school slang and quirky traditions, old-fashioned uniforms, wonderful camaraderie but not, we hope, the chilblains.
Schools, particularly boarding schools, are a popular theme for novelists too. Here are some of our favourite school-based novels. We’d love to hear your recommendations so email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes
Goodbye Mr Chips by James Hilton
The School at the Chalet by Elinor Brent-Dyer
The Madcap of the School by Angela Brazil
First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton
Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge
Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie
The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling
Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris