School houses are utterly ruthless – and utterly rewarding

    4 September 2019

    ‘Come on Burghley! That’s it Porter, you can do it!’ It was sports day 2008, and we were winning. Of course we were winning — weeks of tactical diagrams had gone into making sure of it. The runners crossed over the line and a cheer went up from the blue side. ‘YESSSSSSSSSS!’ screamed a gaggle of teenagers, their faces painted blue. An hour later, the house cup was ours, paraded back to school by triumphant sixth formers.

    They say your school days are the best of your life, but I’d go one further: the days you spent competing for house points — those are the best of your life. I’ve yet to encounter anything more deliciously bonding than those 11 years spent cheering for my house at school, and plotting, like the good house captain I was, precisely how to win. And win at everything: chess, sailing, swimming, tennis, netball, poetry, debating. A friend from prep school remembers his ‘powerful’ performances in house poetry competitions. ‘I owned it year after year. No one could ever forget my historic rendition of “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly”.’

    School houses are a peculiar quirk of the British education system. Some schools have houses in which you both board and compete, while others have separate boarding and competition houses. At day schools, theirs do what they say on the tin: create families within the wider school community. Their members have badges, colours and, at some schools, ties (Spectator Schools editor Camilla Swift proudly explains that hers was ‘poo brown’). Then it’s down to the important business of competing.

    Invariably each house has its own identity. A friend explains that one of the houses at her school was ‘named after the first pupil to die’. At Wellington College in Berkshire, the 17 houses are named for historical figures, usually those associated in some way with the Duke of Wellington. They include Picton (after Lt Gen Sir Thomas Picton, killed at Waterloo), Wellesley (the Duke’s surname) and Apsley (the name of the Duke’s London home). At the King’s School Canterbury, some of the houses are named after old boys: Marlowe, for the playwright Kit Marlowe, and Walpole, for the novelist Sir Hugh Walpole. ‘Our competition houses were called “Thirds”,’ says a friend who attended a school with separate boarding houses named after Ancient Greek states. ‘Nobody was able to explain why there were six “Thirds”.’ An old boy of Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex remembers that each house had its own characteristics: ‘The boys in Maine were either musical or militaristic while the Middleton mob were non-conformists and artists.’

    Wherever you were, house competitions were big business — events endlessly prepped for and fought over. They gave us something to play for. A friend remembers one sports day, more than a decade ago: ‘I confoundingly agreed to do 100 metres. Seeing about five metres in that I was losing ground to the absolute Spartans in the other houses, I did the only thing I could think of to save my house’s honour and tripped over my laces.’

    It’s not all sport, though. My school hosted, from memory, house events in — as well as every sport imaginable — chess, poetry, music, drama, debating and science, in which we’d have to build some extraordinary device. Eton’s ‘House Shout’ singing competition is, as one Old Etonian put it, ‘an extraordinary hit and miss mix of unbelievable musical talent and a painful dirge of tuneless boys being forced to sing listless tunes that housemasters wanted’. One year, senior boys in one house changed the words of ‘Grease is the Word’ to ‘Rees is the Word’ after William Rees, the housemaster, says one of his former charges. House singing was a highlight of the calendar at Christ’s Hospital, too. ‘Looking at the set list was like looking at the social diversity of Christ’s Hospital on one page,’ says an old boy. ‘The girls of Leigh-Hunt would deliver an angelic a capella “Miserere” by Allegri before the Peele boys took on Backstreet Boys.’ At Repton, house general knowledge was a ‘pub quiz without the booze’, says a former pupil. ‘My proudest moment at school came in the picture round where I was the only competitor to identify a production still from Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The master was so convinced that nobody would get it that he was convinced we’d cheated.’

    Laura Kirk, co-host of the podcast Berkhamsted Revisited, in which she reads out her teenage diary, describes house competitions as ‘an absolute staple of the school year — even at prep school’. She adds: ‘Our main duty as house captains was to take it in turns to count the house points each month. Why teachers thought we’d do this impartially, I have no idea, but I remember wondering how many additional points I could get away with before attracting suspicion.’ She became a house captain at senior school too. ‘I cried with happiness when my house, Old Stede, won house music with a roaring performance of S Club 7’s “Reach”,’ she says. Kirk was, by her own admission, extremely competitive. ‘I was desperate to win, to the extent where I’d book out the drum kit so other houses couldn’t practice with it.’

    There was something vaguely ‘sexy’ about house events, says a friend who attended a boys’ grammar school that admitted girls in the sixth form. ‘House life was absolutely tribal — even down to the annual torture of the cross-country competition where we’d have to jump over the ha-ha.’ House swimming was not so fun: ‘I thought it highly unfair to let the whole school watch self-conscious 16-year-old girls in their swimming costumes — that was pretty traumatising.’

    But is any of this useful in adult life? Yes, says a former house captain friend, now studying for a PhD. ‘It teaches you to channel competitiveness in a positive way, showing you the power of a team. I missed it when I went to university, I missed the bond that went without saying when you’re in a house at school.’

    Kirk agrees. ‘House competitions felt like a safe environment in which to be competitive without any consequences,’ she says. ‘They gave people opportunities to play a leading role — be that as a house captain or organising events. I most miss the sense of belonging to a team — to a “crew”, if you will.’

    Would houses in adult life be welcome? ‘I could do without the stress of house music, but I’d still love a nice houseroom to chill in, and a lovely badge that said “Old Stede” to wear to work.’