HOGWARTS WEAVES ITS MAGIC SPELL
Copyright 2001 www.tombraiderchronicles.com

[ November 22nd 2001 ]

Say the words "boarding school" and most grown-ups will think of communal cold showers, child abuse, and fagging. They remember the neurotic, suicidal adolescents of Dead Poet's Society or the gay communists of Another Country then it all goes black and white and the kids are on the rooftops shooting to kill as at the end of Lindsay Anderson's If.

What a cruel and emotionally stilted bunch were those stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen of the Empire and what a barbarous tradition they founded, sending their young away from home and hearth to sink or swim in the perilous, marble-bottomed swimming pools of the public school. Jonathan Aitken's remark that anybody who had been to Eton would find prison not too bad was about the size of it. It's a very good thing that boarding as a concept and a reality is tottering towards the grave.

Except that every kid in Britain wants to go to Hogwarts. J K Rowling, aided by the Hagrid-like reach of AOL Time Warner, has breathed new life into the corpse of the boarding school story which was already cold 30 years ago when my generation were discovering children's fiction the first time around. Even then, few people still read Rudyard Kipling's pre-First World War Stalky and Co or the jolly japes of Jennings, and even Enid Blyton's Malory Towers gang were more to be mocked than admired.

The boarding school was passing out of the fictional landscape and out of the real world at the same time. The decline of boarding at the end of last century was swift and seemingly inexorable. Numbers fell from 125,000 in 1985 to 68,900 last year. But could it be about to stage a last-minute rally? The UK Boarding School Association reports that the fall in total numbers was only 0.8% last year and that the number of weekly Monday-to-Friday boarders rose by 1.3% to 4400. It also reports an upsurge in inquiries, many from parents who did not attend boarding school themselves but who say their children are interested in the idea, citing devotion to Harry Potter.

Hogwarts, of course, is not an option for most children. Admission depends on innate supernatural powers which the strictest cramming cannot instil. The magical steam train which takes the children there each term is not even visible to mere mortals.

But, disregard the magic and the ingredients of the story are all the classic elements of the boarding-school genre. There is the exciting trip to buy pre-school equipment, in Harry's case a wand, and then the train full of nervous new boys and girls. There is the importance of sport, Quidditch, of course, the house loyalty - in Harry Potter's case it's Gryffindor for the brave, and most importantly the friendships, with Hermione and Ron. There is also the teacher with a mysterious past, in this case Professor Snape, played in the film by Alan Rickman: "I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, and even put a stopper in death", he tells his class and a breathless audience in the dark cinema beyond. It's a remix of an old recipe, but it casts as strong a spell as ever.

For Harry Potter, school is an escape from his dysfunctional family, the horrid aunt and uncle who make him sleep under the stairs. And for a new generation, the boarding school fantasy reinvented may be in part about an escape from homes that are not always welcoming. The parenting and development gurus who frowned on boarding believed home was the best place for young people to grow up. Mostly, they are. But homes have changed and are changing, in ways we are only beginning to measure. Home might be the warm centre of family life at weekends. But for many working families it is a cold, neglected place during the week

Of course, children love their parents and want to spend time with them. But from their point of view, weekday evenings are tough, too, especially for those who have two parents involved in busy, demanding jobs. It's probably a late pick-up from after-school care by a tired, grumpy old man or old dear followed by a defrosted meal, homework, telly, and bed. After-school activities, and even seeing pals, probably involve hassling a harassed parent for a lift and then asking to be picked up afterwards, more time in the car, more complicated arrangements. For some kids of two-career families, the main after-school relationship will be with an ever-changing succession of au pairs learning English; for others there will be a patchwork of relatives and childminders to pick up the slack when mum or dad is working late.

If, as is increasingly common, the parents are no longer together, there is the added complexity of dealing with parents' new partners or, worse still, parents' dates. If you were 11, would you really want to be involved in the messy and possibly disgusting loves and lusts of your parents? So, for some families, boarding may offer an old solution to a new problem.

Mark Piper, the headmaster of Gordonstoun, which has received a rush of inquiries from Tomb Raider fans since it was revealed that Lara Croft went there, believes that pupils value most the friendships they make at school, which become deeper than usual because of the time spent together. "Harry Potter has wiped out some of the images of boarding school as being all awful and full of bullies and replaced them with the idea that it is about good companionship." Move over Tom Brown's School Days.

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