Boarding schools – the smell of school dinners wafting up through prep rooms, the stolen biscuits hidden beneath starchy bedsheets, muddy sports kits spinning in industrial washing machines, long-nosed teachers in hard-heeled shoes strolling through dim, flagstoned corridors. It’s fair to say the idea of these archaic institutions stir up a bit of romance in all of us, be it because of novels we read as children or experiences we have had first-hand.
Photographer Mark Draisey was so taken with the idea of British public schools that he spent years travelling the UK and closely documenting each one in the late 1980s. Mark ended up living in each school alongside the boys and girls who were bridging the gap between teenagers and potentially powerful figures in society, and eventually produced the world’s most in-depth study of British public schools in existence.
As part of our Back to School month, we spoke to Mark about the romance associated with boarding school, his experiences in documenting them and the future of these historic, traditional establishments.
Which school did you visit first?
Hurstpierpoint College in Sussex was the first school I approached before I had the idea for the book. I was still at art college and had set myself the project of photographing a day in the life of an independent boarding school and the college was happy to accommodate me.
How long did it take you to complete the project – and what have you learnt from it?
It took me five years to take the photos, which was cut short when the publisher I had on board pulled out at the last minute and I felt I could not warrant spending more time or money on it until I knew it would be published. I could have easily spent another year photographing as the subject was so huge.
Aside from the obvious, did you notice any real differences between same-sex and single-sex schools?
I guess the only difference that was apparent to me at the time was that those at single-sex schools didn’t feel the need to show off to girls. On the other hand, girls could introduce an extra element of competition academically.
Was there anything that surprised you during the series?
Not really because I knew the subject pretty well, but I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly and accommodating the schools were especially when I needed to stay overnight in order to capture late night/early morning shots.
"Even today, some of the schools are still rebranding and incorporating new technologies without losing their sense of history. They know all too well that you can’t sit back on your laurels in today’s commercial atmosphere."Mark Draisey
Did you meet any interesting characters?
Far too many to mention in both the pupils and staff.
There is a certain level of romance surrounding boarding school – why do you think that is?
Obviously, literature of the 19th and early 20th Centuries have helped glamourise the subject, and the Harry Potter books have done a similar job for younger audiences more recently. There is also the atmosphere produced by the historic surroundings and often the choice of unusual or outdated uniforms add to the charm.
How are these school combining modern technology etc. with their history and tradition?
Whilst I was photographing at the schools there was a definite movement underway to modernise and bring in new technologies. Computer rooms were very en vogue and the sporting facilities were being steadily upgraded. As the market grew more competitive and girls were introduced, the boarding accommodation was next to be completely revolutionised. Even today, some of the schools are still rebranding and incorporating new technologies without losing their sense of history. They know all too well that you can’t sit back on your laurels in today’s commercial atmosphere.
What’s the future of these schools?
The British independent school system is attracting pupils from all over the world which in turn raises the academic bar, as well as importing overseas money into the economy. They have always produced leaders in many fields and I see no reason to think this will change. Any attempts to close them down, as has been suggested many times in the past by the more left-wing political groups, would be economically irresponsible as the state system could suddenly be flooded by the extra 7% of the school-aged population demanding places. There is also the question of what would happen to all those listed buildings and campuses made redundant by abolishing independent schools? They cannot all be turned into hotels or leisure centres. So I think their future is pretty bright but never entirely secure.