I'm Harry and I'm a Boarder

By | 19 March 2011

The release of the Harry Potter books ten years ago coincided with a mysterious resurgence in boarding numbers. Wizardry or happenstance? Hilary Moriarty of the BSA investigates.

Whatever else 2011 brings, it will certainly bring us the last film of the Harry Potter books. The first instalment of the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, opened in November 2010. The second will open in the Spring, both films having been filmed in 2010 ready for serial release.
I was in London the night this last book in the series was launched. As I recall, shops opened at midnight to catch the early hunters of a book so magical in several ways. The queue for Waterstones in Piccadilly stretched around several blocks, with many of the would-be buyers clad in black cloaks, tall hats and green make-up. Come to think of it, they were more recognisable as witches than as wizards, but that is perhaps a fine distinction. To be there at all was to be part of a special band, joined in their adoration of the books, their lamentations that this would surely be the last, and their determination to devour it by morning.
The statistics for the Harry Potter books rather beggar belief: according to a recent article in The Sunday Times, the books have sold over 450 million copies worldwide and together with the films and attendant merchandising, they have made J. K. Rowling the world’s first author billionaire. The same article refers to the author earning an estimated one million pounds every three days. Don’t you love the very idea of that? So many years of toiling in the coffee shop or at the computer, believing in yourself and your vision against the odds, holding on in the face of rejections from publishers, so much spinning of a fantastical story, followed by years of watching the bank balance swell by two million pounds every week, and presumably not toiling on Sunday.
While the Harry Potter books have been the foundation of many another fortune – the film makers, the film stars, the agents and publishers – they have also been credited with changing the fortunes of boarding schools. Ten years ago, after several years of boarding numbers in independent schools falling, suddenly the rot seemed to stop, and the numbers rose. Was it The Harry Potter Effect?
The reasons for the numbers falling were probably in the first place many and various: principally the financial crises of the early 1990s, for instance. At much the same time, and for the best of all possible reasons, boarding fees rose. Recognising that standards in boarding – facilities and accommodation – had to improve if boarders were to be encouraged to join and stay, schools needed to invest. Sometimes refurbishing was possible. More often, schools chose to build new to replace old or out-worn buildings. The customer was changing – parents and pupils were more discerning. The ‘Wow!’ factor extended from theatres and sports halls to boarding accommodation itself, with en suite facilities and common rooms with huge TV screens.
But there was also a change in the very climate around boarding: parents turned against the idea of prolonged separation from their children, however glamorous their surroundings. Many boarding schools took day pupils – why not get the great education a local independent school could offer, but have the child at home in the evenings and at weekends? Anxiety about the welfare of children in schools also caused many parents to hesitate.
In response to the changing times, schools themselves changed. Many boys’ schools opened their doors to girls, and doubled their potential market. Many schools where boarding had entailed being away from home for at least three weeks at a time, between exeats and half terms, discovered a new market in which parents and pupils were happy with weekly boarding, with pupils at home at weekends. Many schools went further, and offered flexible boarding, where pupils stay for perhaps a couple of nights a week, sometimes regularly, sometimes at random. This was a boon for many hard-pressed professional parents: many of today’s full boarders began their experience of boarding as occasional stayers on a nightly rate.
With such flexibility, boarding schools approached 21st century parents with an up-to-date and very attractive version of an old style form of education. Particularly where both parents had the kinds of jobs where early starts, late finishes and occasional overseas travel were the norm, to have a child at a school which could offer such a high calibre twenty-four hour service was wonderful as well as welcome.
So where did Harry Potter come in? Was there really a Harry Potter Effect? I do not think any serious research on the subject was ever done (please correct me if you know of such a project) but the press was quite happy to report on such an effect, possibly as they cast about for a new angle on education – ‘Aha! Have boarding numbers gone up since the books came out?’ – and possibly to find a new angle on the books themselves. When you’ve done the review and talked about the film, what next – ‘I know – it’s a boarding school, isn’t it? What’s happening there these days?’
It is of course possible that the Harry Potter books did for boarding today exactly what Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books did in the 1950s: made it sound to the child reader at the very least normal and at the best hugely attractive to go away from home to a boarding school. So it is possible that any parent approaching a child with the idea of boarding school might have found themselves pushing against an open door – ‘Great – yes, I’d love to, just like Harry!’
I somehow think there would have been nil effect on the parents themselves – ‘Hogwarts sounds so character-building, it’s just what Junior needs!’ – no, I can’t imagine that somehow, although I think a lot more middle-aged commuters with children of school age were reading the HP books on trains than ever read the Malory Towers or St Clare’s books fifty years ago. Perhaps it is just possible some might have wielded the books in their persuasive armoury to convince a child that boarding would be wonderful. ‘Darling – you’re just as clever as Hermione – you’ll love it!’ Perhaps. More likely there would be an effect on children themselves – boarding is (mostly) fun in the books – but in the early books at least it’s a little surprising that the effect was indeed positive. After all, few children would be in the dire circumstances in which Harry found himself at the start of the first book, sleeping under the stairs in the ostensible care of the dreadful Dursleys. You could easily imagine why Harry would want to go to wizard school – dear help him, anywhere would have been better than where he was, and leaving a loving family he certainly wasn’t.
But most children are happy at home – why should they want a Harry-type escape? Especially to a school where your school House is chosen by a talking hat, and you play the equivalent of hockey in mid air? Has no one in this magical world heard of Health and Safety?
Ah, now there’s the rub: there is one theory which suggests that the most successful children’s fiction has in common the element of showing the young reader a child like themselves but in a slightly different world, where the child is – effectively – safe and not safe, with a lot more freedom of movement and autonomy than the reader, able to make their own decisions, able to do dangerous things, able to make a difference to the world in some way, because the good adults are not quite on their usual watch, not so vigilant, concerned but distant and perhaps even distracted, and someone just has to stop the bad guys no one else is noticing.
Think ‘Famous Five’ and ‘Secret Seven’ as well as the boarding school books like Blyton’s and those of Brent Dyer – The School at the Chalet threw in an exotic location in the Tyrol, too – and in all of them the children are slightly on the loose, mixing it with villains and sorting it all out before parents arrive at the end of the book not having a clue what’s gone on but ‘So pleased you’ve had a lovely time, darling!’ Cue for the young protagonists to smile secretly at each other. If it had been invented then, they’d have been doing high fives behind their parents’ suited backs.
That’s exactly what happens to Harry and friends: Ron and Hermione come from perfectly OK – even idealised – homes, but in term time, like Harry, they enjoy the excitement of a dangerous world in which, for most of the books, Dumbeldore maintains an ultimately safe pair of hands but you may not see him for days on end and only after pages and pages of danger. By the last book, Harry and Co. are young adults, with bigger foes, playing for bigger stakes, and prepared to offer their lives in the defence of good. But by then, they have largely left the sheltered corridors of Hogwarts, and the real world encroaches upon young adults a lot more mature at 18 than Darrell Rivers would have been at the same age.
So perhaps Harry Potter persuaded a generation of 21st century children that it was OK to go to boarding school; that they would not die of homesickness if they did; that they could have adventures, if not exactly with invisibility cloaks, then at least playing hide and seek in huge grounds with trees and lakes on a scale well beyond the suburban. And – as for Hermione and Ron if not for Harry – home was a safe and warm haven at the end of term.
Ironically, much of what happened at Hogwarts would have an Ofsted inspector of boarding turning cartwheels, but the security of a positive Ofsted report is perhaps for adult reading – and comfort – rather than under the bedclothes with a torch when your mum thinks you’ve turned out the light.
Of course, it’s highly likely that boarding numbers would rise or stabilise in a world where they offer great opportunities, great pastoral care, great friends and great fun. It helps, too, that at the time of writing the top independent and the top state school in a Sunday Times league table are both boarding schools – no worries about academic standards then. But it’s rather nice to think that any new Year 7 may take a second look at the portraits on the stairs in case they wave, and reflect that detention is not so bad if no one is scratching letters into the back of your hand, and happily email home because it’s quicker than sending an owl.
It may be just an ordinary boarding school, but that new Year 7 may still have a magical time.

Hilary Moriarty is National Director of The Boarding Schools’ Association and a Contributing Editor of Attain.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Attain.

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