Skip to main content

Freezing dormitories and terrible food

School entranceIt’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 [email protected]

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


Do faith primary schools in London fail poorer children?

ChapelThe Good Schools Guide highlights concerns that Church of England and Roman Catholic primary schools in London are doing too little to ensure they admit children from all backgrounds.

According to new analysis of Department for Education data, the 485 C of E and RC schools (which make up 26 per cent of primary schools in the capital) record significantly lower numbers of pupils receiving free school meals than the 1,350 primary schools with no religious affiliation.

Faith primary schools in London are either voluntary-aided or free schools and act as their own admissions authorities. This allows them to set their own criteria for selecting applicants when the school is oversubscribed. According to their admissions policies, 505 out of the 528 faith primary schools in London can select children according to their religion when oversubscribed. RC schools, which most commonly have religious selection in their admissions policies, can theoretically award 99.3 per cent of their 12,105 places in London to Catholic children.

Ralph Lucas, editor of The Good Schools Guide, is particularly concerned by the imbalance shown in the distribution of pupils on free school meals between faith schools and schools with no religious affiliation:

‘Faith schools ought, surely, to have a particular interest in educating the poor. In London, where we often see oversubscription and therefore religious selection, the evidence is that (on average) they do not. Church of England schools have a well-below-average percentage of children on free school meals, and Catholic schools are even worse.

‘There are many great faith schools and for a large number of them their faith is part of the reason that they are great. For many parents, of all creeds and none, the education that faith schools offer is what they want for their children. If we agree to an expansion of faith schools, it must be on the basis that this is a contribution to our society as a whole and not just to one part of it; in particular, we must ensure that faith schools are not turning poor families away on the grounds that they are poor.’


Most popular Good Schools Guide articles

  • Special educational needs introduction

    Some special needs are easy to spot, others are only determined once a child has experienced considerable difficulties, frustrations or social and emotional problems.  Over the years, diagnosis of and provision for SEN have improved, but both can still be a minefield. Identifying different kinds of special educational needs Few children fit a condition perfectly – if they do, we tend to say they are a ‘classic’ case. Most will not be straightforward: perhaps a dyslexic with dyspraxia and a touch of ADD, or a child with ASD who also has Down’s syndrome. Just as special needs are hard to…

  • Finding a state grammar school

      There are currently around 164 state funded grammar schools located in 36 English local authorities, with around 167,000 pupils between them. There are a further 69 grammar schools in Northern Ireland, but none in Wales or Scotland. Almost half of these are considered 'selective authorities' (eg Kent and Buckinghamshire), where around one in five local children are selected for grammar school entry based on ability. The others are areas such as Barnet or Kingston, with only a few grammar schools. How to find a state grammar school Word of warning: not all selective grammar schools have 'grammar' in their…

  • The Good Schools Guide online subscription

    Find the best school for your child. One month subscription - £0.49 per day Three month subscription - £0.41 per day Six month subscription - £0.33 per day One year subscription - £0.29 per day Register for instant access to: ☑ Search for more than 30,000 schools in our parent friendly interactive directory. ☑ Create and save lists of schools via My Schools. ☑ Use our comparison grid to get exam results overview of schools you are interested in. ☑ Find comprehensive advice on state and independent schools, tutors and special needs. ☑ Catchment maps for English state schools by…

  • Schools for children with performing arts talents

    As proud parents, we all know our children are unique. They're smarter than anyone else's, funnier, certainly more attractive, better behaved and above all bursting with the kind of talent that would leave Daniel Radcliffe or Charlotte Church standing. And sometimes, just sometimes, parental pride is justified.

  • Uni in the USA... and beyond

    The British guide to great universities from Harvard to Hong Kong. We tell you how to choose, how to apply, how to pay. Why study in the US? Ask the US-UK Fulbright Commission... Ask the US-UK Fulbright Commission who report that you're in good company: the US is the top destination for international students worldwide.  In fact, over 11,000 British students chose the States for their studies last year. Read more Scholarships for International Students Here's where you click to receive our giant pdf on US university scholarships for international students, covering how to find financial aid and how... Read more Can I afford it? America might proclaim…

Subscribe for instant access to in-depth reviews:

30,000 Independent, state and special schools in our parent-friendly interactive directory
 Instant access to in-depth UK school reviews
 Honest, opinionated and fearless independent reviews of over 1,000 schools
 Independent tutor company reviews

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark

The Good Schools Guide subscription

GSG Blog >    In the news >

The Good Schools Guide newsletter

The Good Schools Guide Newsletter

Educational insight in your inbox. Sign up for our popular newsletters.

Now the school and university years are over


For a limited time get one month's Good Schools Guide subscription free with any purchase of The Good Schools Guide London North and London South