No escape: boys lean from the windows of their dorms at Eton College. Image: David Levenson / Alamy

You’ll be a man, my son? The horrors of prep schools revealed

Charles Spencer’s new book highlights the cruelty of his time in an English preparatory school in the 1970s. That cruelty, in that system, persisted
May 1, 2024

Few writers enjoyed their time at prep school. Orwell hated his, St Cyprian’s in Eastbourne, and demolished it in an excoriating essay, “Such, Such Were the Joys”, that was published only posthumously in 1952 for fear of libel. Various issues of fact have since been disputed by his contemporaries, but the evocation of deprivation, psychological and physical cruelty and desperate homesickness is one that any alumnus of the prep school system can relate to immediately, with hideous clarity.

Orwell served his time from 1911 to 1916, and Charles Spencer, author of the new memoir A Very Private School, suffered at Maidwell Hall in Northamptonshire between 1972 and 1977. My own period of misery came between 1992 and 1994; years that I remember vividly. So it was with a mixture of anticipation and dread that I turned to Spencer’s account of his education, which he spent in an “outdated, snobbish, vicious little world”. It is a considerable shift from his earlier historical biographies, such as Killers of the King and The White Ship, and written with clear conviction and passion that make its occasional instances of repetition and over-emphasis unimportant.

In England and Wales the private education system has, since the early 19th century, divided itself into two distinct camps. There are public schools, which are, traditionally, grand and historic institutions, and usually cater to those aged between 11 or 13 and 18 years old; and prep, or preparatory, schools, which exist largely to propel their pupils, generally entered from eight years old, into the next stage by getting them through the rigours of the entrance exam (historically, the ironically named Common Entrance, although this is now being phased out in favour of the Pre-Senior Baccalaureate, or PSB). There are around 500 prep schools in the UK, charging an average of £9,000 a term for boarding education. At a time when the future of private education is threatened by the likely Labour government’s promise to put VAT on school fees, effectively raising the costs by around 20 per cent, questions will be asked about the durability of this potentially ephemeral period of paid-for schooling.

State primary schools in this country are much better than they were two decades ago—one of government’s little-trumpeted but real achievements—and so the gulf between free and paid-for education has narrowed. Yet, even if middle-income parents now have less reason to send their their sons and daughters to fee-paying prep schools, they were priced out of the market some time ago, anyway. Instead, these places are peddling licensed snobbery, with those who attend them being groomed, from an early age, to believe that they shall take their rightful place at the top of society, helped by family money and personal connections. The sleek shall inherit the earth.

These places are peddling licensed snobbery, with those who attend them being groomed to believe that they shall take their rightful place at the top of society

This educational exclusivity has always been part of its appeal. Spencer acknowledges it early on when he writes, “what I endured during five years in one of the most expensive private schools in England, during a time of solid political and economic stability, is not at all comparable with the suffering of so many other children… forced to survive in landscapes of total despair.”

Still, this privilege has to be earned. The grimmest part of a prep school education is that children arrive, at a young and impressionable age, in an environment where there is little or no love to be found. The very young are dispatched—when they are most in need of parental comfort—into the often indifferent, even abusive care of those paid to look after them. Which is not to say that, at good schools, there isn’t compassion, or affection of a kind, to be found. But paid-for attention is not the same as what comes naturally.

By the time that I, aged 10, turned up at my prep school, I had the uneasy feeling that someone had made a mistake. The Old Malthouse was located near the Dorset coast—it’s closed down now, thank God. My parents knew that paying the fees for the various public schools I’d been entered for was going to be difficult unless I could somehow win a scholarship. I was intellectually a middle-ranker, at best—decent at English and history, appalling at maths and science, average at everything else—but the school’s headmaster, whom I’ll call Johns, assured my parents that I would excel under his and his colleagues’ care. I would be a big fish in a small pond, and would make lifelong friends. It was a no-brainer from their perspective.

I was unconvinced. Boarding at prep school had always been used as a threat to me. “Eat up your greens or you’ll be sent away.” “If you answer back, you’ll find yourself in a dormitory with other boys, and you’ll be sorry then.” But the thought of change, even adventure, was exciting. I was an aficionado of Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings novels, which gave the most rose-tinted view of prep school education imaginable, full of midnight feasts and kindly masters and fun.

Besides, I didn’t have that much choice. I needed to win that scholarship. I would go away, not see my parents for weeks on end and be placed in the hands of men and women whom they were paying to educate, entertain and edify me, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I would be living in small, cold rooms with other boys (the Malthouse was defiantly single-sex when I went there, although it cracked through financial necessity and went co-educational before it closed down in 2007) and forced into shorts every day, even in winter. Long trousers were a privilege reserved for the eldest pupils.

As for Spencer, he was “mute with terror” and “in a state of exhausted shock” before he began at school. He was the scion of a broken home and sent away at the age of eight, partly because his kindly but detached father barely knew what to do with him, and partly because it was family tradition: his father had gone away to board, and his father before him.

He brilliantly captures the horror of the first day: the tense drive there; the reluctant acquisition of a temporary guardian (“surly little eyes pushed deep into a wide, pasty face”) who ditches him the second that he can; and the terrifying disorientation that comes when you know nobody, although he was relieved to find himself among “kind-hearted and friendly” compatriots. There was an uninterested, incompetent matron, “Granny Ford”, unpleasant older boys and spartan conditions. Little had changed two decades later.

Worse was to come. As a child, Spencer underwent “cruelty, sexual assaults and other perversion”, including becoming the sexual plaything of one of the ostensibly “smiley, kind and chatty” junior matrons, known as “Please”—like all female members of staff—whom he calls “a voracious paedophile”. The details of what he was compelled to do with, and to, her make horrific and deeply sad reading. Understandably, he hated Maidwell Hall so much that, at the end of the holidays, he contemplated shooting himself in the foot with one of his father’s shotguns so that he would not have to return.

Still, Spencer—a godson of Queen Elizabeth—was decidedly the right sort, somewhat to the chagrin of his lesser-born teachers, who seemed irritated by the privilege of their charges. He became Lord Althorp as a result of his grandfather’s death, and his disgruntled headmaster wrote, “We have been tolerant; he has had his fun. That is enough of it, and we want no more.” I was not from a grand background. My father was a solicitor, my mother a teacher; the sort of solid, backbone-of-the-bourgeoisie jobs that most of my friends’ parents had. My mother held antediluvian views, and I had been encouraged not to be friends with a boy whose parents had the temerity to run a shop. Instead, I was forced into an embarrassing, never-to-be-repeated playdate with a gangly youth whose parents were both doctors. The right sort. But this was trifling compared with what happened when I arrived in Dorset.

Boarding school is easier to describe to people who went through the same trauma. Reading A Very Private School had me alternately nodding and wincing in recognition. I suppose that former prisoners can also relate to that earth-opening feeling when you’re stranded among strangers, all of whom already know one another: a particular bit of cruelty that comes when you join a school halfway through the cycle, as I did. The overwhelming feeling of isolation, loneliness and unfairness still lingers. I had barely been at the school for an hour before I wanted to go home and never return. I didn’t cry, though. I was too deep in shock that first evening to weep. The tears would come later, and copiously, but for the time being I was numb.

I had barely been at the school for an hour before I wanted to go home and never return

It was much the same for Spencer, who writes, “homesickness was as inexplicable as it was inescapable… a secret shame that had to be denied.” Here, and elsewhere, his prose can verge on the over-written, as when he describes his feelings as “the agony of a twisting blade with the slow, constant suffocation of hope and reason”. Still, his anguish is justified. Corporal punishment, whether from the slipper or the cane, always lurked in the shadows, for a variety of infractions, and Spencer calls this “the rumbling undertones of danger”.

His headmaster, “an evil sadist with paedo tendencies” named Jack Porch, not only delighted in tormenting the “Saturday Morning Club” of the most attractive boys—his beatings led to “a large bulge in his cavalry twills”—but would become angry if he was not presented with half a dozen victims on a daily basis. So desperate was he for fresh meat that he would encourage boys to cheat at card games in the dormitory, before visiting “whackings” on them with “pain that was shocking in its intensity”. It was little wonder that Spencer experimented with bulimia and self-harm out of sheer misery.

Corporal punishment had gone by the time I was at the Malthouse—although several of the teachers lamented its recent cessation—but there was more torment at hand. With the exception of a couple of the more enlightened and humane teachers—one of whom eventually abandoned pedagogy for a career in journalism—it was a grim and oppressive environment. At both Maidwell and the Malthouse, parental visits were regarded with some suspicion and discouraged except on set-piece occasions. Letters were written weekly, under a degree of supervision. Mine were, I am fairly sure, read by one especially malevolent teacher. If I confessed to unhappiness, then the letter would be removed and only a stamped envelope would make it home.

Inevitably, of course, I was bullied. There’s usually a reason why people are bullied at prep schools—and it’s about fitting in, or failing to do so. Sometimes boys were singled out for having ginger hair, or a stammer, or the wrong sort of shoes, or being vegetarian, or fat, or too thin, or being foreign—the early 1990s were an unenlightened time—or practically anything. One unfortunate wet the bed, so he was fair game. (Spencer notes that the incidence of bedwetting at Maidwell was “shockingly high” and that it was regarded as “a filthy habit that was embarrassingly babyish”.) But the main reason why boys like me were bullied with impunity was because we weren’t the right sort. We weren’t good at games (the memories of shivering on freezing fields on winter afternoons will forever linger), and that was a cardinal sin. I was the sort of boy who attempted to lurk in the library as much as I could, until I was forcibly propelled out. “Have some fresh air, it’ll be good for you.”

A Very Private School has plenty of this, too—“it rarely paid to stand out, at Maidwell”—as well as focusing on the institutional cruelty perpetuated by some of the masters. Maidwell had a 10-minute free-for-all every evening called “ragging”, when the children had a licensed period of fighting, with strange, old-fashioned rules: kicking and biting were outlawed, whereas judo throws and punching one’s peers’ chests were absolutely fine. As Spencer writes, “it wasn’t so much permitted as encouraged – an outlet for the aggression that was the core strand in the surprisingly hardy regime that thrived beneath the school’s veneer of gentlemanly civility.”

Maidwell had a 10-minute free-for-all every evening, when the children had a licensed period of fighting

I half-heartedly had a go at bullying myself once, to try to fit in. There was a child named Green who had a penchant for drinking ink straight from the cartridge. I suppose I thought him an easy target, so I pushed him around a bit, called him a weirdo and a loser, and tried to make myself seem awe-inspiring and intimidating for a moment. I failed, miserably. I still remember Green’s ink-stained, vampiric smile, as he hit me, hard, in the chest and told me to fuck off. I retired hors de combat, painfully aware of the latest development in my public humiliation.

Yet bullying by boys is one thing: I have tried to forgive them, for they knew not what they did. There was one teacher whom I can never forgive, any more than Spencer could make peace with his main tormentors. Brutality eventually became so rife at the Malthouse that this teacher made a great song and dance about an exercise book in which incidents of particular horror were recorded: it was known as “the bullying book”. Wild rumours circulated as to what would be entered into it; several boys were openly hopeful that they would be listed as perpetrators of the offences. I suspected that I would be in there, as a victim, and one quiet day, I ventured into the forbidden surroundings of the staff room. Yes, there it was; an innocuous pink volume. I flicked through it, heart beating, until I found my own name, with details of the latest incident I’d had to undergo at the hands of some lumpen, spotty youth, who liked to laugh as he hit me hard on the arm, bruising me. (I looked him up while writing this, out of curiosity: he’s now a successful name in property.) But what chilled me, and makes me shiver in anger and misery to this day, was the comment that this teacher had written next to the account of my torment, in the neat hand he favoured. Probably deserves most of it!

Is there anything to be said in favour of the prep school system? There were occasional lighter moments for both Spencer and me, the kind of black humour that arises from spending time around eccentric masters. He was taught by a man named Maude, a hard-drinking aristocratic pederast worthy of Decline and Fall who blamed the decline of the Roman empire on their penchant for massages—“and that will turn your muscles to mush”. I even envied him Porch, who may have been a monster but was witty, in a way; my bête noir was nothing more than an overgrown bully. I often thought that he would have liked to hit me.

There has, I hope, been progress, not least because the vast majority of prep schools now want to involve parents, rather than keep them at arm’s length. The less enlightened ones, like my alma mater, have closed down rather than adapt to the times. Today, the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS) stresses on its website that “Many parents regard [the schools] as caring second homes for their children”, which may raise questions as to why pre-pubescent children need second homes at all, but it is a considerable distance from the penitentiary-like conditions that these schools fostered a couple of decades ago. It is also a competitive market, given how expensive fees now are; a poor inspection result from the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) can often result in closure.

Spencer concedes that he is not against boarding schools for teenage children, and stresses how much better conditions have been for his own sons, all of whom genuinely wanted to attend such institutions, albeit as weekly boarders. Still, Orwell wrote in the 1940s that “clearly there has been a vast change of outlook, a general growth of ‘enlightenment’, even among ordinary, unthinking middle-class people”. He was wrong. 

Reading A Very Private School, enlightening and occasionally amusing though it is, was grim. It took me back to being a lonely 10-year-old, fearful and lost and realising for the first time that I didn’t fit in in these circumstances. I never did win a scholarship, either, rendering the whole process pointless. I doubt that the trauma of my time at the Old Malthouse will ever wholly leave me, just as, clearly, his own trauma has endured with Spencer. He writes, of a portrait of him at the time, that “it is a study in sadness – of a boy, lost.” I remember a similar picture of me, with the same miserable expression, and the thought makes me swallow hard. But, after all, we probably deserved most of it.