Monday, 29 May 2017

The real Malory Towers experience: Take your child to boarding school!

"You have to dress up posh too, mummy," says my daughter, half stern, half playful. "Or we'll never get away with it!"

Saturday morning and me and my 11-year-old daughter are going undercover.

We're going to the most expensive girls' boarding school in Britain (£37,275 a year to be exact) for their Open Day – as a pretend prospective pupil and parent. My bog-standard-state-school educated daughter has devoured Enid Blyton's Malory Towers series – just as I did when I was a kid – and her head is filled with a fantasy life of midnight feasts and hockey sticks. Wouldn't it be fun – and a tiny bit mischievous – to see inside that world for real? We're a little nervous (do we have the acting abilities to pull it off?), but really, what difference will one extra mother and daughter tagging along make? They'll barely notice us.
Wrong! All parents potentially willing to fork out £37K a year on their daughter's education will be noticed. People have flown in from all corners of the globe for this Open Day. It's a v. big deal. As soon as we enter, my bobbly coat is whisked off me (in the end I’d decided the I'm-so-posh-I-can-be-scruffy look would be more convincing) and we are greeted with fresh coffee, still-warm Danish pastries, and programmes with our names on (sports fixtures in school today: showjumping and lacrosse). 

A pretty, skirt-suited woman, a member of the leadership team, bounces over to us. "Just act confident," I whisper to my daughter. "It's all about confidence." The woman introduces herself and reassures us that she has worked in prep schools for many years before coming here so she "knows where the girls are coming from". "What school do you go to now?" she asks my daughter. My daughter looks her straight in the eye and says the name of her bog-standard-state-school loudly and clearly. I see the woman flicking furiously through her mental files of prep schools. Nope, that one's not in there. She moves on quickly. "So, would you be a boarder or a day girl?" "Oh, definitely boarding!" says my daughter, beaming. (Impressive acting!) "Oh yes, boarding is great fun," says the woman. "Like a perpetual sleepover, right? The other day, the girls all took their duvets down to the den with hot chocolate and marshmallows and slept there all night!" she continues, feeding my daughter's fantasies. 
Then she plucks us our own personal schoolgirl to be our tour guide: a quietly-spoken, very sweet girl in Year 8. I notice that both her shoelaces are undone and she has a big smudge across one of the lenses of her glasses (seems £37K a year doesn't get you quite the care from Matron you might hope for). "First, it's really great here," she says, without changing her expression."I have to tell you that first." (Have to? Like, instructed to?)

She takes us down Alice-in-Wonderland marble corridors and past a huge wood-panelled library with spiral staircases. "Wow, wow, wow!" my daughter and I mouth to each other with sneaky sideways glances. Her tour is interjected with bits of housekeeping information, like, "That's where you put your lac stick while you're in lessons". I nod, knowingly, as if lac is a word I bandy around a lot. 
I notice the door security code she presses to let us into the drama department is in roman numerals. (That should keep the riff-raff out.) She seems super-excited about using the lift to take us up to the theatre. "It's the only lift in the whole school," she tells us. "Everyone loves using it." I look at the buttons. There is only G, 1 and 2. "Erm, do you ever get to go out of the school?" I ask. "Yes!" she says. "Sometimes on a Saturday, Matron takes us to Waitrose." 

She escorts us to the astonishingly beautiful Assembly Hall with chandeliers, balconies and organ playing and we take our seats for an introductory talk and Q & A session with the Headteacher and senior teachers, a row of neat grey bobs and androgynous types in tracksuits. I get myself into slightly sticky waters when the couple next to me strike up a conversation. "It does make one reflect on one's own schooling, doesn't it? And whether you want the same or different for your own child." (Erm, yes, but not in the way you think). I bluff my way through with vague answers, reddening. I'm glad I put foundation on at least.  
The Head actually has a bun. And an ample bosom. Perfect. She's like a nice Miss Trunchbull and has a down-to-earth sense of humour. In answer to the question, "How do you keep the girls secure?" she replies, "Well, if I lose a girl, it's game over for me!" We're also reassured that House Mistresses keep an eye on the girls' table manners. She tells us that she went to this school herself. Now she works here. This is her world. "The chance to go into town with Matron [not just Waitrose] when they get to Year 11 becomes a wonderful thing," she tells us, without a hint of irony. 

Next we are taken to a Boarding House by two pupils from China. It is modern. Smart. Comforting, if not exactly cosy. We are greeted by the House Mistress (who lives in an adjoining apartment with her cat) and shown around: Dorms, showers, prep room, dining room. There's also a common room on every floor with sofas, cushions, beanbags – and microwaves. For their Waitrose-bought snacks.
Now, who says there's no such thing as a free lunch? It's fantastic. A choice of hot meals with a choice of hot side dishes, a salad bar, an assortment of fruit and desserts and cheese and crackers. We sit down with our trays and a group of five girls immediately join us. "Great food!" I say. "Yes," they agree. "Though you have to moan about school food. It's just what you do!" They seem eager to meet people from the outside world. Super-eager. They compete for my attention, talking over the top of each other, and I feel motherly towards them all. 

We're feeling really brave now and ask all the things we really want to knowWere you homesick? How often do you see your parents? Can you choose who you share a dorm with? Are you made to have a shower everyday? Do you have midnight feasts? They use words that are foreign to us like mufti and exeat and tell us the nitty-gritty details of their daily life: How their dirty laundry comes back to them washed, ironed and folded in their cubbyhole. How they have to do prep for an hour and a half every evening (though they're allowed to personalize their study booth). How you must walk to and from lessons with your Walking Buddy. How they get sanctions if they talk at night. And how they have to keep their mobile phone in a pigeon hole and are only allowed access to it twice a day (though one parent, they tell me with joyful horror, gave her daughter two phones, so she could secretly call her anytime). The chef rings a bell and two of them jump up like Pavlov's dogs. "That means seconds," they say. "Do you go to school with boys at your school now?" the others ask my daughter. She fends them off wonderfully. "Yes, but I  wish I didn't. Boys can be soooo annoying." She's way better at this than me. 
"So what are you doing this afternoon?" I ask as we get up from the table. "We're going to Waitrose with Matron!" they answer. "Everyone seems really keen on Waitrose here," I say. "Why's that?" They look puzzled. "'s really big," one of them ventures. "So what's on your shopping list today? I ask curiously. "Strawberries!" they say. I look round at the food counter. There is a big pile of strawberries ready for the taking. Clearly, the thrill of Waitrose isn't about the food. 

As we enter the outside world, I'm eager to know my daughter's opinion of the place. "It's a bit like a prison," she says. In Malory Towers, it always says things like 'Daryl nipped off to post a letter', but those girls are there 24/7 – apart from when they go to Waitrose."

"That reminds me," I say."We need to get a few things for dinner on the way home. Let's go to that Waitrose over there." "Urgghhhhh..." she groans. "Do we have to?"


  1. Ha ha, I love that you went undercover, what a great experience! And who knew Waitrose could be so exciting ��

  2. I think it's fantastic that you pretended to be prospective parent and pupil - hilarious! I wonder if they brainwash these kids who show you round to say all the 'right things' - it sounds very scripted and unenthusastic sometimes! #fabfridaypost

  3. Haha! Brillant! This brings me back down the memory lane when I was in boarding school. I must say I could not agree more! One thing I will never do to my own children is sending them to a boarding school. There is a World out here! lol! Thank you so much for linking up with us on #FabFridayPost xx

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  7. Great Blog,
    I made me remind the day when I went to visit a boarding school for my daughter. Enjoyed reading it.
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