Thirty-five years ago, shortly after my 16th birthday, my parents finally got fed up with me and packed me off to boarding school. Now, half a lifetime later, my 16-year-old son is about to follow in my footsteps. The two scenarios aren’t quite the same (back then, it was my parents’ idea — this time, it’s my son who can’t wait to get away), but as I pack his trunk and think how much I’ll miss my one true pal, I can’t help wondering — am I doing the right thing?
Naturally, I have no idea — like most of life’s big decisions, it’s a roll of the dice. Yes, I can cite all sorts of reasons why going away to school at 16 is a thoroughly good idea (it’s a bridge between school and university, it’ll teach him to become independent, etc) but to be honest, if I put my mind to it, I can think of just as many downsides. So why am I taking this punt on my son’s future? If I had to sum it up, I’d say I’m trying to give him a glimpse of a world elsewhere.
Let me explain. Like me, my son went to a state primary school and then on to a state secondary. Like me, the state system seemed to serve him fairly well. Like me, he left his state school with a respectable array of GCSEs (O-levels in old money). Like me, he never thought he’d end up at a private school. So why swap state for private, why swap home for boarding?
Not for academic reasons — there are several state schools on our doorstep where he could get a sterling set of A-levels. No, it’s because I believe that independent boarding promotes a more creative way of thinking. While state schools have been regulated to buggery, posh boarding schools are still free to let it all hang out.
Here’s an example. One of the most vivid memories of my life is my first English lesson at boarding school. I’d always been fairly good at English but I’d never really relished it. At my state school, we slogged dutifully through the set texts, memorising the key quotations, rehearsing answers to the essay questions we’d face in the exams. It was faultlessly methodical, and terribly pedestrian. And then I went away to boarding school, and English literature opened up.
My first English lesson there was in the lower sixth common room — a sunlit gallery overlooking lush green gardens and rolling hills beyond. There were 11 other pupils, nine of them girls. These were nothing like the tough and brittle girls I’d grown up with. They seemed both older and younger, more innocent yet more self-assured. Among them was the first girl I fell in love with, and the girl I should have fallen in love with, if I’d known what was good for me. Also present was the boy who became my best friend, and who stole away my first girlfriend.
However, it was what we learnt that day which made that English lesson so memorable. Our English teacher was a world away from the teachers I’d known at state school. He was an ageing hippy who’d just returned from India. He’d published a book of poems — most of them pretty awful, a few of them extremely good. He recited two poems by W.H. Auden: ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ and ‘Lullaby’. He said he didn’t really understand them — he asked us what we thought of them. We talked about them for an hour, and meaning emerged. Today, looking back from the lonely summit of middle age, I can still recite those poems: ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love, human on my faithless arm…’
For the callow 16-year-old I was then, this lesson was a revelation. It didn’t feel like work at all. I’d had no idea that schoolwork could be so exhilarating. That was the beginning of my interest in writing. This was the way learning ought to feel, the way writing ought to move you. It was my first glimpse of another world.
Anyone who goes to a decent school should have a similar epiphany. It might happen in the science lab, it might happen on the sports field. If you had your epiphany at a day school, then I’m very pleased for you — but it didn’t happen to me until I went away, and I guess that’s why I’m now sending my son away too. I know the experience will change him, just as it changed me, utterly. When I left boarding school I had a clear idea of what I wanted. I wanted to make a living out of writing. My old life lay far behind.
I got an A in English, and flunked my other A-levels; at my old state school, I would have ended up with all Bs and Cs. Consequently, my subsequent career path was a lot more haphazard. If I’d stayed at my old school, I’m sure I would have ended up with a steady job, and a steadier life all round. My life probably would have been a lot simpler, but it wouldn’t have been so interesting. The people I met at boarding school were unlike anyone I’d ever met before, and I’m very glad I did meet them. The best thing I can say about them is that they gave me ideas above my station. And in the end, what parent — or pupil — can ask for more than that?