My son has just started school and I was pretty sure I knew what to expect – he’d be solving mysteries and sneaking out of the dormitories for midnight feasts. But so far, it just seems to be learning about shapes and things. Doubtless the fact that he’s not at a boarding school will also impede his ability to have midnight feasts as well, but the whole thing is disappointing for someone brought up on traditional school stories. Of course, he could go to the new kind of school, where everyone breaks into song spontaneously in the corridor all the time but those don’t seem to exist either.
So, let’s just leave reality aside for a moment and celebrate the Top 10 Fictional Schools.
10. St Trinian’s
If it’s mad escapades that you’re looking for, look no further than the naughty schoolgirls of St Trinian’s. Starting life as a series of cartoons, the antics of the smoking, drinking schoolgirls became first books and then a series of films. We’ll ignore the recent remakes, on the grounds that they were rubbish. Typically, a St Trinian’s girl would know how to use a hockey stick (as a weapon) and how to roll up a school skirt to reveal the maximum amount of leg. As a cross-dressing Alistair Sim said in the films: “In other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared” Not a school for the faint hearted.
9. East High School
Unlike the other schools on the list, East High is not strictly fictional. But the version of the school that is familiar to millions through the “High School Musical” movies is very different to the real version. The actual East High is located in Salt Lake City, Utah (the movie is also filmed at other schools in the area) but the film is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Also, the real school doesn’t have ridiculously good-looking teenagers doing spontaneous dance routines in the hallways and only communicating with each other through the medium of song. Still, the real school has quite a busy tourist trade now, as fanatical pre-teens flock to see the spot where Troy and Gabriella sang together. Not quite a fictional school but it might as well be!
We’re back in the world of English girls’ boarding schools now, with a series of books set at the Trebizon School. Written in the 80s and early 90s as a kind of modern update of the Enid Blyton tales, it still seems dated now, with stereotyped characters (Tomboy Tish, Sensible Sue) and stilted dialogue. But it seems fun enough, with the focus on tennis and hockey as well as surfing on the Cornish beaches. And, in the school story tradition, there was a mystery to solve every term. What was remarkable about the Trebizon series is that occasionally the endings were actually surprising, unlike most children’s books where the “twist” can be seen a mile off. They may not be bang up-to-date but they’re entertaining reads.
7. William McKinley High
But don’t invest in that hockey kit yet – here’s another tempting fictional school you might want to consider. Based on the HSM model of spontaneous showtunes, the school in “Glee” sees more than its fair share of drama…and music. Where else would the school assemblies feature a fully-choreographed Britney Spears number? The teachers are unusual too -from sarcastic coach Sue Sylvester to overly sincere Spanish teacher Will Schuester, who spends approximately 1% of his time teaching Spanish, 90% of his time coaching the Glee club and the remaining 9% chasing and then rejecting various womenfolk. Don’t send your child there if you want them to get a good education, but do consider it if you want them to have a lively romantic life and awesome high-kicks.
6. The Chalet School
The Chalet School is an English boarding school in everything but location. Set in Austria because one of the main characters was ill and needed the fresher air, the school moved around a lot during the Second World War and only briefly stopped in the UK. The 60 books were written by Elinor Brent-Dyer and followed the story of the school’s founding members as they grew up and had their own children (who were, of course, educated at the Chalet School too). A children’s classic of the “jolly hockey sticks” genre, it does read as slightly sexist and unrealistic by today’s standards but it has its own charm. Nearly 90 years after the publication of the first novel, the fan club “Friends of the Chalet School” are still extolling the virtues of climbing mountains and having fun with your chums.
5. Grange Hill
A world away from the clean air and pure living of the Chalet School is Grange Hill. A British TV series set in a North London secondary school (similar to a high school), it was gritty and dealt with the issues that teenagers faced in the mid 80s. One character’s heroin addiction eventually led to a single (“Just Say No”) and the Grange Hill cast appeared at the White House to secure Nancy Reagan‘s backing for their anti-drugs campaign. The series actually ran for 30 years, from 1978 to 2008, but never quite regained the highs of that mid 80s trip to Pennsylvania Avenue. During that time, it saw hundreds of “students” pass through the school doors, and a myriad of issues covered from dwarfism to rape. If you did want to send your kid to a fictional school, this probably wouldn’t be high on your list.
4. Sunnydale High
Talking of schools you probably wouldn’t send your kids to, how about one where students “skip straight to the obits” when reading the school paper? Yes, it’s Sunnydale High, as featured in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its attractive features include a sunlit courtyard and a freakishly high mortality rate. There’s also a bell tower that’s perfect for students wishing to shoot themselves, a gym where cheerleaders occasionally combust and a cafeteria where the food sometimes turns into snakes. Oh, and a gloomy library stocked with nothing but books on witchcraft and demons. And it’s also a hole in the ground, following the finale of series 7. But don’t let that put you off – they have a lovely prom, apparently. With barely any hellhounds.
3. Malory Towers
There are many stories set in girls’ boarding schools in Britain but this is perhaps the definitive one. Written by Enid Blyton, it follows the story of “hotheaded” Darrell Rivers, who gets herself into trouble all the time, thanks to her temper. But at heart, she’s a “good egg”. Midnight feasts are compulsory, Lacrosse is the game of choice and there are larks aplenty. But there are some dark issues covered, even in the first book when Darrell almost kills a girl called Sally, who is later proved to be a compulsive liar, pathologically jealous of her baby sister. There’s a lot of rage pent up in this school by the sea. But somehow it has become the blueprint for every school story written ever since, and the planned destination of every small girl who had ever packed a suitcase and declared themselves “off to boarding school” Or was that just me?
2. Bayside High School
In some ways the American equivalent of “Grange Hill”, “Saved by the Bell” ran from 1989 to 1993 and was set in Bayside High School, but was an altogether lighter proposition than the gritty British show. True, there were occasional serious issues dealt with, like drugs and divorce, but it was mostly just a gang of kids getting through high school as best they could and the fun they had along the way. The clothes were bad, the hair was even worse, but it was cool in its own, very geeky way. The exploits of Screech, Slater, Lisa, Kelly, Jessie and Zack spawned several spin-offs and has even made it onto lists of the best comedy shows ever. If you had to choose a TV school for your child, you could do worse than Bayside.
But why settle for an an ordinary school when you could choose a magic one? True, the student mortality rate equals that of Sunnydale High and there may still be a basilisk lurking around the basement somewhere, but think of all the cool things they’d learn! Floating pencils, summoning silvery things to ward off things you never knew you had to worry about…all great life skills that they can take out into the workplace! Of course, the big disadvantage is the exclusivity – it’s invitation only, and if you wait until your child’s 11th birthday for the letter confirming their place, then you’ve probably missed out on applying to other educational options. So, if you suspect your child is all-Muggle (or a squib), then Hogwarts isn’t the place for them. Good luck in explaining why their school will have no broomsticks or magically-appearing food. But if they seem too disappointed, remember that not attending Hogwarts greatly improves your chances of surviving to graduation!
This feature originally appeared in Smashing Lists.