Prep School Children: A Class Apart Over Two Centuries by Vyvyen Brendon

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Prep School Children: A Class Apart Over Two Centuries by Vyvyen Brendon

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Category: Home and Family
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Experiences of prep school children over the past two hundred years for the enthusiast. Interesting, but rather dry, I fear, for mass appeal.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 246 Date: October 2009
Publisher: Continuum
ISBN: 978-1847062871

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Prep School Children is Vyvyen Brendon's second collection (Children of the Raj was the first). It explores the pupil experience, using primary sources like weekly letters home, memoirs and interviews, and less immediate material such as fiction, school magazines and headmasters' biographies. I came to the book with some questions: what was it like to be a boarder at a prep school? What difference did a prep school education make to life as an adult? Why parents might send their children to such schools when the horrors were well-known, many of the dads presumably having survived the experience themselves.

Prep schools identified a market early in the nineteenth century for entry-level education for privileged boys. Parents saw the schools as a gatehouse for later boarding at a public school and fast-track into a profession. At first for the sons of rich or aristocratic parents, the popularity of prep schools spread quickly to the middle classes. They have flourished for two hundred years, despite the onslaught of socialism and comprehensives, cultivated by the vicissitudes of the British Empire and two world wars.

According to Wikipedia, prep schools are currently educating around 130,000 pupils. The term 'prep school' now encompasses a wide, but still privileged, range of experiences: boarding or day attendance, large or small roll, mixed or single sex pupils, with flexibility to suit today's parental needs. In the twenty-first century, they seem peopled by enthusiastic, happy and committed children, but it wasn't always so.

There seemed to be three main historical reasons for sending boys as young as eight years away from home. Firstly, parents absent overseas or otherwise too engaged to deal with their offspring. Second, the educational advantages, and third the social advantages, as perceived by parents.

Major public schools had notoriously competitive entrance exams, primarily in Latin and Greek. Although it wasn't unknown for well-connected boys to be admitted whatever their exam result, (Winston Churchill is a famous example), most pupils had to achieve a high standard to gain entry, even if their parents were both rich and upper class. The masters had years of practice in successfully passing children on to public schools, usually at the age of thirteen. By comparison with state education, the private sector had small classes, a Common Entrance-based curriculum and excellent facilities. Prep schools still enjoy a large portion of self-determination, having been excluded from the dictates of the national curriculum. For years, grammar schools modelled their curriculum and ethos on the public schools. Even today, tradition reinforces the commonly-held belief that public and prep schools provide the best in education.

In yester years, the practice of sending a child to boarding school at eight years of age was supposed to make him independent. Pupils were indoctrinated in manly British qualities such as emotional control, fervent patriotism and team spirit. Boarding at a public school was known to be a tough regime against which children needed to be equipped to survive. What the survivors learned were coping skills against inadequate and unpalatable food, endemic bullying and regular punishment from sometimes eccentric, sadistic or paedophile masters and older boys. They were exempt from academic inspection until the 1950's and only relatively recently have boarders' living conditions come under scrutiny. It is difficult to see how the spartan, sometimes execrable and dehumanizing conditions of those earlier days could possibly have been supported by parents as social education.

Those who enjoyed their schooldays seemed balanced by the ones who hated every minute. The swimmers tended to be confident, easy-going, gregarious and sport-orientated. The other, sinking chaps felt very solitary. Some became severely depressed or somatically ill; occasionally they died as a result of their privileged experiences. The plaintive pleas for rescue sent to parents (usually unsuccessful), make for harrowing reading today. I was left in little doubt about how much boarding school life has changed over the past two or three decades.

Vyvyen Brendon's detailed account makes a serious contribution to our understanding of life in prep schools, though maybe less about their place in society at various times. Don't look to the book for sensationalism or a rant, for or against: it's rather neutral, in keeping with the author's historical research background. Sources are plentiful but limited, as she notes, because they were rarely unbiased. Most children's weekly letters home were censored by the school in the bad old days. While the book answers my questions, it's therefore difficult to comment on how accurately it evaluates prep school life for the majority of pupils.

The Bookbag would like to thank the publishers for sending this book.

'Boy: Tales of Childhood' by Roald Dahl appears in the copious bibliography and has been reviewed here at The Bookbag.

Buy Prep School Children: A Class Apart Over Two Centuries by Vyvyen Brendon at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Prep School Children: A Class Apart Over Two Centuries by Vyvyen Brendon at

Buy Prep School Children: A Class Apart Over Two Centuries by Vyvyen Brendon at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Prep School Children: A Class Apart Over Two Centuries by Vyvyen Brendon at


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