If you are reading this, you are probably not the target audience for the news that follows, and yet, I can’t help thinking you will be as delighted about it as I am. A smart, talented writer friend of ours has adapted Enid Blyton's "Malory Towers" for CBBC. Isn't that wonderful? The CBBC demographic may be 9 to 15 year olds or so, but I suspect I won't be the only middle-aged woman to tune in.
"She saw a big, square-looking building of soft grey stone standing high up on a hill. The hill was really a cliff, that fell steeply down to the sea. At each end of the gracious building stood rounded towers. Darrell could glimpse two other towers behind as well, making four in all. North Tower, South, East and West." First Term at Malory Towers, Enid Blyton
That Cornish boarding school loomed large in my prepubescent years. In my imagination, the location and architecture seemed dramatic and exotic. The main protagonist, Darrell Rivers, was not richly written but as a rather reserved child, I enjoyed her bluntness and trademark "hot temper". She was sporty and enjoyed writing; two things I also liked and took quite seriously. Repeated readings of the series even inspired me to write my own highly-derivative boarding school adventure, which I called "Torrissey Towers". My Dad, who is a tidy artist, drew me a lovely front cover for it, to make it look proper.
As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, my love for boarding school stories eventually led to an anomalous two years at just such an establishment. At the age of sixteen, I left my hometown in west Surrey for a school located in the middle of Farmsville, Hampshire. From this age, I was never at home again full-time as, like the majority of children at the school, I boarded, despite being only half an hour's drive from where I lived.
My school was nowhere so dramatic as the Cornish coastline. The nearest sea was the one frozen in the chalk of the nearby Downs which undulated their way from east to west. The 1,200 acres in which we lived and learned were dotted with a handsome collection of red brick, neo-Georgian buildings and later additions, surrounded on all sides by fields of crayon-box yellow rapeseed. All very lovely. We were, though, three miles away from what could (at a stretch - to my adolescent mind), be called "civilisation", and each spring, those attractive fields of rape would release a heady miasma of volatile compounds, assailing my respiratory system and leaving me less like a sprightly teen and more a rheumy-eyed, wheezy geriatric.
Entering the school at age 16 meant my experience was likely to waver from the Blyton template. It was not a single sex hot-bed of sporting matches and celebratory teas, silly pranks and midnight feasts. There was a pool, but it was utilitarian and smelled of stale chlorine and feet. It was no glorious, seaweed-festooned rock pool carved into the Cornwall coastline and fed by the English Channel. Darrell Rivers, you may recall, was also fortunate enough to have a school diet lifted largely from my seven year old’s fantasy tea.
“Hard-boiled eggs to eat with bread-and-butter, chunks of new-made cream cheese, potted meat, ripe tomatoes grown in Miss Lucy’s brother’s greenhouse, gingerbread cake fresh from the oven, shortbread, fruitcakes with almonds crowding the top, biscuits of all kinds and six jam sandwiches!" Upper Fourth at Malory Towers, Enid Blyton
Our school, however, seemed on a mission to turn the cliché of poor school dinners into irrefutable fact. The girls’ boarding house was located at the northernmost edge of the school’s grounds (tantalisingly close to a pub). It was often difficult to muster the motivation to embark on the long trudge up the drive, when the reward was only grey meat, insipid mash and anaemic vegetables swimming in tangy water. In the boarding house kitchen, though, there was a never-ending supply of industrial brown and white loaves, a selection of spreads, and butter or margarine. Faced with the grim alternative "up at school", we subsisted on toast. An attitude of teenage girls, gathering in the kitchen, drawn by Maillard reactions offering the warm smell of home, to sustain our social selves, as well as our stomachs. In time, we became connoisseurs of this simple staple food, despite the rather finite permutations of what was on offer. A healthy choice of brown bread or the treat of white. Bread well-toasted, or barely. Thickly spread, or thinly. Toasts arranged as a savoury course (peanut butter or marmite) followed by pudding (jam), or two slices sandwiched together for a more substantial and dinner-like offering.
This ritual meant that, at breakfast, in particular, it was not unusual for there to be only a single girl in the dining hall: me. After a spell of keeling over like a myotonic goat if I wasn’t sufficiently breakfasted, eating well in the morning was an entrenched part of my routine. I had also established it was the least worst meal of the day. Even the school kitchen couldn't mess up toast, cereal and the constituents of English breakfast - much, so I made the most of it.
Being a one-good-friend sort, I didn't have the intensely social experience that was the bread and butter of Blyton’s stories, but I was lucky enough to make a firm friend, my own Sally Hope, and a fellow state school alumnus. A Blytonesque good egg with a dry and hilarious wit, and absolutely the person you would want by your side to navigate teenage weirdness in an unfamiliar setting. Going to a boarding school was a different and more jarring experience for me, and I was very glad to have someone whose presence at the school was also not a natural sequitur to what gone before.
A frequent and fair criticism of Blyton (and boarding schools) by modern readers is the paucity of diversity, in terms of race and privilege*. Most of my contemporaries at the state comprehensive I went to, graduated to one of two local sixth form colleges, one in the town and one in the next town over. When my mum suggested the boarding school, I don't think she was down on the local colleges, wanted to get rid of me, or had grand plans to move me into private education. She just suggested it as a possibility, and I was enthusiastic. We were a single parent family and a fee-paying school would not ordinarily have been an option, but the headmaster’s eyes lit up when I mentioned I was hockey captain and I got a mixed package of financial assistance based partly on academic and sports scholarship, and part bursary from the school's foundation, which offered financial support to around 10% of the school body.
Looking back, I did no real due diligence of my own, or even thought a great deal about the move, but I was primed for a transition at this point, and Enid Blyton had been giving me the hard sell on boarding schools since I was in bunches. But, by the end of the taster day, I had established that almost everybody else had arrived from independent schools and I did have a wobble. These boys and girls were different. On average, everyone was more confident. I met boys who weren't afraid to be overtly smart (a more rare beast at my previous school). There were talented musicians and sportsmen, competent actors and writers. Not all the points of divergence were positive. In comparison to the peer group I had left behind, I found most of the boys to be infuriatingly juvenile at first and, en masse, I sometimes found the girls less worldly and a little shrieky. This was an initial impression and not wholly borne out once I had got to know everybody. Regardless, I met my Sally Hope and a handful of other good sorts, so I was not lonely.
Life was simple. The structure of school life created neat compartments for work and play. A kind matron looked after us, nursing us when we were ill, providing a friendly ear and doing our laundry, which appeared like magic in our cubby holes. Our rooms were cleaned and vacuumed. There was "prep" each evening during which we would do our homework, or sneak into each other's rooms (which was verboten), ears pricked for a patrolling housemistress, or whomever was on duty. After prep and at the weekends, we would watch television piled up together on bean bags in the common room. As we turned 17 and started learning to drive, there would be a cheerleading squad to cheer you off to your driving test and commiserate with you when you failed for the third time. When bogged down in coursework and revision, there would always be someone ready to take a break and listen as you had a minor flap and panic, and mainline hot tea with you. Did I say there were no silly pranks? Well, of course, there was silliness. In what would now seem an anachronistic act, we poured over the ads in the back of newspapers and colour supplements and signed each other up to the aggressive mailing lists of companies offering libido enhancers, or dating services, advice on managing excess bodily hair, undergarments for the elderly - the more embarrassing, the better. I should add that this was done between friends and never to isolate.
Beyond the boarding house, social time revolved around the Sixth Form Centre which offered a couple of low-strength beers or alcopops twice a week, and a place to congregate during down time. Sometimes, the whole experience felt like a bizarrely genteel exercise in adult practice, which is probably what the school was aiming for. "Bizarre", because I had grown up in co-educational schools, on a long leash, in a town that has occasionally claimed to have more pubs per capita than anywhere in the country (and several of those establishments didn't seem particularly interested in whether you were of legal drinking age). It was an adjustment.
Of course, it wasn't all 1940s wholesome frolicking. There was the aforementioned pub located unfairly close to the school. Bounds were broken, drinks were drunk, cigarettes were smoked and substances experimented with (those last two do not apply to me - I have always been hyper square). Those unlucky enough to be caught flouting school rules would discover that punishments could be arbitrary and weird. When a boy was caught in my room [gasp!] I was "gated", which meant I was confined to school and, as a weekly boarder, I wasn't allowed to go home at the weekend. My best friend and boyfriend at the time were both full boarders, so this was not a very punishing consequence. We were also required to tidy up the costume room: an attic stuffed with everything from military regalia, to Shakespearean bodices and itchy ruffs, glittery polyester slacks and sweaty 70s wing collar shirts. It was so obviously an enterprise in fun that people volunteered to help us. The impression given was that the housemistress was not very troubled by my brush with rule-breaking.
The youth of Blyton's demographic and the time at which she was writing meant that her portrayal of boarding school was never going to tackle some of the thornier aspects of those schools that we wrestle with today. All but a tiny handful of boarding schools are in the private sector and my experiences certainly illustrated the discrepancies between the systems. Obviously, the rich educational experience and positive life impact private schools offer is not the issue per se, but rather the lack of access to it, the morality of state support for the independent sector (through teacher training and access to the teachers' pension scheme, for example), the effects of losing the patrimony of engaged pupils and parents to the private sector and, equally importantly to my mind, the impact of selective practices shielding young people from the full spectrum of society. A two-tier system sucks, and the easy solution, idealogically, would be to abolish private schools. But dismantling such a complex system would be enormously expensive and convoluted. It's something that model single-tier education systems like Finland have not had to contend with. Current events like Brexit and the SEND provision reform prove that our country seems to lack the wherewithal to tackle complex problems efficiently. Meek tax reforms for private schools are unlikely to inspire societal change. My own view is that, at the very least, the tax benefits currently enjoyed by the schools should be conditional on radical improvements to access and meaningful outreach and resource sharing, perhaps even going as far as requiring independent schools to federate with maintained schools. I don’t really know, though. It is somewhat of a wicked problem, with gigantic logistical considerations, tangled economics, subtle philosophical notes and no clear-cut solutions. And I say all this as a conflicted hypocrite, someone contributing to the problem: we have one child in a private school and one in a maintained school. I would say "don't ask", but you can if you want. The TL;DR is that it's complicated but, also, that when push came to shove we didn't put money (or not put money) where ours mouths were.
And then there’s the social and emotional implications of school away from home. Blyton gives short shrift to antagonist (and arguably the only character approaching three-dimensions in the series), Gwendoline's, first night tears in "First Term at Malory Towers". Boarding School Syndrome wasn't really an issue for us robust 16-18 year olds, but my heart ached for the little boys in the junior house. However good the pastoral care is at a school, I don't see how house-parents can replace a loving parent or primary carer for our youngest children without risking negative psychological impact. I should also say that the safeguarding issues I witnessed at the school mean I would never send my children to boarding school. Suffice to say, it is far easier for things to go unnoticed, unreported and unaddressed in a boarding school setting compared to a day school. Just my personal view, of course.
Also conspicuous by its absence, given the subject matter of Blyton's boarding school stories, is education. I suppose the omission is understandable given that the readers of Malory Towers were looking for escapism, not a continuation of the travails of the classroom. I was fortunate enough to have two stellar English Literature teachers who shepherded us along the winding path through Chaucer, the metaphysical poets, Marlow's “Dr Faustus”, Milton's "Paradise Lost", Alexander Pope, John Clare, Ibsen, Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Miller's "Death of a Salesman" to the plays of Pinter. They wielded the crooks of their intellect and pedagogy to indicate a conceit or motif, a form or theme, a metre or phrase from the text, like so many wriggling sheep. It was a pleasure to be immersed in great literature for those two years and, for ill or good, I would not exchange my time at the school for this formative experience alone.
Schools are very much on my mind, as my husband and I are currently nearing the end of our search for a school that doesn’t exist. Our eldest son is approaching secondary transition and I have arrived at the conclusion that we would have more luck finding Hogwarts than a school that meets Spike’s needs. This country’s unwillingness to understand what autism really looks like has resulted in skewed provision for autistic children in education. There largely seems to be an assumption that, as an autistic child, you are either learning disabled/cognitively delayed, with a high needs profile, possibly non- or minimally verbal, and only able to access a mainstream curriculum in quite a limited way or, you have what might once have been known as an Aspergers-type profile. My son is neither of those. On the plus side, if you are harbouring a nascent wizard, you can just sit back and wait for a Hogwarts faculty member to rock up with your letter of invitation.
Grumble over - on this forum, at least, and hooray for fictitious boarding schools.
* This has, happily, been addressed in some new "Malory Towers" books by Pamela Cox.
Want to read more? Speak softly, but carry a stick of chalk.