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Is Tom Parker Bowles right about boarding school?

Harry Wallop and his children

Harry Wallop: ‘What was the point in having four offspring, only to send them away the moment they become interesting individuals? Photo: Clara Molden/The Telegraph


The photo in my old school magazine is captioned “Lent 1983”. It shows 14
boys, all wearing Guernsey jumpers and corduroy trousers, posing on their
first day at their new school: Summer Fields in north Oxford.

I am there, with a pudding-bowl haircut, a few feet from Tom Parker Bowles,
son of Camilla, now Duchess of Cornwall.

We both look impossibly young – certainly too young to be there, standing in
front of the croquet lawn in north Oxford and destined not to see our
parents for another three weeks until our first “exeat”.

So, I was not surprised to read in an interview that Tom gave this week that
he’d never send his children there. It was, he claims, “a hotbed of the
sorts of things that are coming out now”.

I should declare an interest – Tom and I still bump into each other and are
friendly; I’ve always admired how he managed to cope with his mother being
thrust into an unforgiving spotlight without going completely off the rails.

He is being a little harsh on the school, alluding to the historic paedophile
brush that has disgraced many other prep schools such as Caldicott (an arch
football rival of Summer Fields), while simultaneously admitting nothing
actually happened. At the time, it was acknowledged to be one of the best
prep schools in the country, where most of the “masters” – if eccentric –
loved to teach.

But I do share with him a deep distaste for the idea of packing away a child,
barely old enough to tie their own shoelaces, for weeks at a time and
placing them in the care of strangers. When we arrived that January, we had
just turned eight. The only contact with our families in those days, long
before the mobile, was a weekly letter home – written in silence before
Chapel on a Sunday morning.

I was, in fact, pretty happy there. So, too, was Tom PB, as he was always
known, despite both of us being useless at the twin religions of cricket and
Latin, which were worshipped with a zealous fervour.

First day at boarding school for Harry (front row, second right) and
Tom Parker Bowles (back row, third from right)

The atmosphere, however, could be more Victorian mental asylum than Hogwarts
hijinks. Corporal punishment still took place when I arrived. I can remember
us gathering in the changing rooms to examine the cane marks on Charles
Money’s bottom.

Sweet rations were handed out on Wednesday and Saturday lunchtimes; when
mid-Eighties inflation hit the Mars bar, we were given just half each.

There were definitely – as Tom has hinted – some strange masters, who lingered
too long in the communal showers, overseeing the post-games wash.

But that is not the reason I decided I would never send my children away to
board, and why my 11-year-old is now at day school.

It is mostly a selfish desire to spend time with them. Of course they drive me
up the wall, but they are my children and I want any neuroses and
personality defects to be instilled at home, not in a far away
establishment. What was the point in having four offspring, only to send
them away to another county the moment they start to become interesting

For all the fun I had (and I did), I think boarding so young made the
relationship with my parents more distant than it otherwise would have been.
How could it not, when we spent half of the year apart?

My mother admits that she cried and cried as she drove away from Summer Fields
that first time. I would, too, and see no reason for the pattern to be

Harry Wallop


Anna Pasternak and Daisy in her boarding school dorm (ANDREW CROWLEY)

I honestly can’t believe that I have become that woman. I am the hearty
mother, championing boarding school, waving wincing doubters off with an
impatient hand.

To those naysayers, I say: you simply must update your script. Boarding
schools today have about as much in common with those cold, cruel bastions
of the past as black-and-white televisions have with flat-screens in HD.

Still, I never thought that I would be the one advocating noisy, bustling,
communal life for kids. As a child, I adored my education at St Paul’s Girls
School in London, and was so wedded to day school that I practically
suffered homesickness on a class trip to Milton Keynes. My father, too, went
to a grammar school – so we’re hardly from a long line of gung-ho boarders.
And I know enough men eternally damaged by boarding school – my 50-something
husband is still traumatised from his grim experiences at Lancing College in
West Sussex – to appreciate that boarding has indelibly scarred many.

But my personal experience, through my 11-year-old daughter, Daisy, is that
modern boarding schools can be jolly, caring, stimulating and, crucially,
loving environs, where your children can thrive.

It was Daisy, then aged five, who first asked me if she could board. Not
because she was desperate to get out of the house, but because at her
school, Godstowe Prep in Buckinghamshire, she thought that boarding looked
such fun. I thought that she was off her rocker until we went for a tour
around the boarding house and I ended up wishing that I could sign up, too.

Godstowe advocates flexi-boarding, the most ingenious invention as it allows
you part-time parenting. Aged six, Daisy began to stay over one night a week
and loved it. For her, it was more like going on a glorified sleepover than
being banished from home.

Far from being dreary dorms gripped by a Dickensian cold, with homesick
children sobbing under duvets, today’s boarding houses are a riot of energy
and colour. Many have house dogs bounding about, while mobile phones mean
contact with parents is hardly the agony of waiting weeks for a solitary

It’s more Mallory Towers than you might imagine – all that Cath Kidston
everywhere, while the girls are sweetly excited by “treat night” of Pot
Noodles for dinner. Their tuck of choice is seaweed. I told you times had

As our school run takes an hour’s round trip, the two nights that Daisy
currently boards per week knock four hours off my weekly driving. We have
two evenings a week free (meaning we can go out without a babysitter) and
two lie-ins. Bliss.

I’m also spared the horrors of the school nit check. Mrs S, Daisy’s saintly
house mistress, does that. OK, so I did feel suitably guilty (yet secretly
relieved) when, the other week, Daisy had a bug on a boarding night and
vomited all night long. But I wasn’t told until breakfast time, so swanned
in, refreshed, to take her from poor, hollow-eyed Mrs S and her deputy.

When my husband and I travel during term, Daisy boards full time. Of course,
sometimes she gets a bit homesick – but the upsides far outweigh the
temporary ache of missing her. She is undoubtedly more robust and
emotionally capable as a result, while her confidence has soared.

Flexi-boarding has fostered an independent spirit; she mucks in and gets on
with people and situations. Daisy recently went for a testing boarder’s
weekend to Cheltenham Ladies College. When I collected her, the
housemistress said: “She’s been an absolute delight. She’s a natural
boarder.” I allowed myself a rare burst of maternal pride.

It reminded me of the nosy mother at the school gate, who, when she heard that
six-year-old Daisy was to board, looked at me, horrified, as if I were
sending my daughter down a mine. “Yes,” I said, eyeing this woman’s clingy
child. “Isn’t it marvellous that my daughter is so securely attached that
she is as happy boarding as she is at home?”

If she didn’t love it, I’d whip her out and send her back to day school faster
than you could say “lights out”.

Anna Pasternak

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(via Telegraph)

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