What most intrigues me about the latest British school scandal, in which two 13-year-old pupils have been expelled for under-age sex and another for theft, is the mention of a sandpit. I know that Bedales in Hampshire is notoriously groovy, but what’s a sandpit doing in a senior school?
Lily Allen’s alma mater was founded in 1893 by a trendy chap called J H Badley who believed that “head, hand and heart” must all be involved in the educational process. I have visions of today’s pupils skipping along to the sandpit for regressive therapy to get in touch with their even younger selves - and therefore with what they really want from life.
Because that is what exorbitant 'progressive’ schools are all about, isn’t it: giving the kids what they want?
I ring up ex-Bedalian Amanda Craig to set me right. She based an entire novel, 'A Private Place,’ on the £27,000-a year-and-counting co-ed boarding school in Hampshire.
“There was no sand pit,” she explains. “But there was a giant sand quarry, a huge pit of a thing filled with wildflowers. It was out of bounds, and an absolute magnet for students who wanted to have sex.”
Craig, who was “profoundly unhappy” at Bedales, has been decried by many ex-Bedalians for criticising the school she attended from 1972 to 1979.
Then, as now, there was a zero tolerance policy towards sexual intercourse, drugs and getting drunk. “It was very hardline,” says Craig, whose 15-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter both attend independent day schools in London, “but that never stopped people.
“An instant way for girls to be popular was to have sex. You weren’t thought to have done anything wrong if you had sex aged 13.”
She was, I suggest, at Bedales some years back. Schools change. “Sex is endemic to all boarding schools that are co-ed and in the country. But the ethos of Bedales makes it much more likely to be going on.”
That ethos boils down to the teachers being 'down with the kids’. “There was no uniform and a very definite culture of being cool, but there were rules. They just weren’t taken seriously. The teachers wanted to be friends with the children, who called them by their first-names.”
Like Summerhill, (where pupils bathed naked) or Frensham Heights (where, during my own interview for the school, the headteacher memorably said that he would be “horrified” if children were not “having sex in the bushes”), to name but two of our liberal-minded private schools, Bedales attracts the glitterati.
These genteel rebels seek out schools that prioritise the rights of a child to flourish in a nurturing, creative environment. Sophie Dahl, Minnie Driver and Poppy Delevigne all went there. So did Kirsty Allsop - though how she ended up as a Home-Counties, hearty sort I don’t know.
You can be sure that the lovely Kirsty didn’t shoplift - unlike the 13-year-old Bedales pupil who was also said to have stolen whisky from Waitrose (note the choice of supermarket).
A close friend went to Bedales and found herself to be an innocent fish in a most precocious pond. She refers me to Amanda Craig’s novel, who was a few years above her. “She nailed it,” she tells me.
She too was scarred by the pressure to be cool. “It was horribly, brutally cliquey. You were either the Select, or the Unselect. I had buck teeth and wore secondhand clothes, so guess where I fitted in?
“I wonder how much pressure those in the coolest cliques were under themselves. Today the famous who’ve left Bedales talk about how miserable they were - but they were the ones who made us miserable.”