JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, featuring the magical boarding school of Hogwarts, didn’t just become the bestselling children’s books of all time. They had a rather interesting side effect. The books prompted an unprecedented spike in boarding school applications.
Of course most children understood that boarding schools don’t necessarily feature moving staircases and talking portraits. But Hogwarts represented something attractive to children, a different kind of magic that can still be found in some of England’s older educational foundations.
Much of it is the window dressing. Hogwarts had ancient buildings, eccentric teachers striding about in billowing gowns, distinctive uniforms that set the children apart and ‘houses’ with funny names like Slitherin and Hufflepuff. The school that I invented, St. Aidan the Great (S.T.A.G.S.), features all these selling points. There are five houses: Marinus, Lightfoot, Paulinus, Bede and Honorius. The teachers aren’t called teachers, but Friars, and wear full-on monastic habits. The pupils wear long black Tudor coats, with deer-leather belts, and bright stockings of arterial red. I didn’t invent this stuff, and nor did JK Rowling. The straw boaters of Harrow, the top hats and tailcoats of Eton, the long blue coats and mustard stockings of Christ’s Hospital are as real as they are rarified. The uniform is a physical manifestation of what the school offers: the plumage that says we are other, we are a society apart.
And some schools and colleges go further. There exist secret societies within these secret societies -huddled inside one another like Russian dolls. The exclusive coterie of prefects at S.T.A.G.S., a sextet of beautiful people known as the Medievals, is emblematic of these little cliques: designed to make selected students feel like they belong, while rejecting the wider group. Unimportant, you might say, a childish caprice. Except that David Cameron and Boris Johnson, alumni of the notorious Bullingdon Club, ended up running the country.
The real selling point of boarding schools, of course, is that they shore up the British concept of Class. Class is of perennial interest to the British, and it seems that the peculiarities of our class system are just as interesting to the rest of the planet. Downton Abbey was a global smash hit, and Rowling’s books about chosen children at a magical public school became bestsellers the world over. But surely class is an increasingly outdated concept, in a world where YouTube creates icons and a reality TV star can become the president of the United States. And if so, why are we still obsessed with it?
In my book S.T.A.G.S., what sets the school apart from the modern world is the self-imposed ban on smartphones and modern technology. Those who eschew tech are known as ‘Medieval’ and those who embrace it are identified as ‘Savage.’ And I think this cuts right to the heart of the matter. If the internet represents the democratization of culture, maybe one reason that a boarding school just for the rich is so attractive, is that there is a large slice of nostalgia for a world that is disappearing. Yes, class is outdated. But maybe that is its appeal.
S.T.A.G.S. by M.A. Bennett is out on August 10th from Hot Key Books
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