It’s fashionable to criticise boarding school. It’s fashionable to slam private schools as a whole as elite engine rooms churning out a disproportionate number of prime ministers and actors. But not all private schools are born equal and it’s the boarders – the Etons and Harrows – which are seen as the real privilege-pushing so-and-sos by many.
Kirstie Allsopp is the latest to have a go, commenting that she finds the system “weird”, that it’s a “peculiarly British thing to believe that someone looking after 80 kids, a housemaster trying to do his job and also bring up his own family, is more qualified to safeguard your child than you are.”
To be fair, Allsopp is highly qualified to speak on this subject since she went away aged eight and had a miserable time drifting through 10 boarding schools as she grew up.
Also, I remember the day my parents, sister, grandmother and I dropped my brother off at prep school, also aged eight, and left him standing beside his trunk in the sports hall. Drum was so small and thin you could have blown on him and he’d have fallen over. We left him there, knees knocking in his scratchy grey uniform, and wailed like professional mourners in the car home. Mention this memory to my mother and she still wells up. Yes, a bit weird, and eight is very tiny.
Then I went to boarding school aged 11 and had seven absurdly happy years. It wasn’t all ideal. Cross-country was hell and I was always cast as the man in school plays because I was so tall. There were also fewer midnight feasts than Malory Towers led me to believe. But I was surrounded by girls who, to this day, remain my closest friends and, for many of us, being away from home and warring parents was no bad thing. In such cases, the relationship one had with a watchful housemistress or housemaster was vital.
What’s more, in the 16 years since I left boarding school, they’ve only got cushier. Flexi-boarding, when you’re allowed out every other day or so, is the norm and, having overseen the Tatler Schools Guide for some years, I know that dispatching a teenager at the start of term is like checking them into Claridge’s. There are “executive chefs”, “health and fitness centres” and skiing trips to Whistler. A few years ago, Roedean had a £9 million makeover by a firm of architects who usually knock up boutique hotels.
In the same interview, Allsopp said she intended to send her sons to a London secondary school, but in my experience these can be more problematic. Those I know who went to London schools discovered drugs, anorexia and self-harm much earlier than we sops in our dormitories.
Debating the merits of sending your kid to a private day or boarding school is bourgeois dinner party chat, I admit. More of my generation than before won’t be able to afford the dizzying fees anyway, which you may think is a good thing, but all I currently see happening instead is my middle-class mates fighting to get on the local church roof committee in order to get their children into the best primary school over others with less pointy elbows. Still, if you’re an American tech billionaire or presenter of a TV property show and wondering where to send little Augusta, don’t discount the boarding option. It depends on the child. I still remember the day we were served ostrich burgers for supper. It really wasn’t much of a hardship.
Read Sophia Money-Coutts's latest column on telegraph.co.uk every Monday from 10am