Sally Phillips – “Being at an all girls school gives you the freedom to be silly”

Boarding school wasn’t the best experience for writer and actor Sally Phillips – but it had its moments…

Sally Phillips
by Sally Phillips

My dad worked for British Airways, so my family lived in lots of countries while I was growing up. I eventually went to a single sex boarding school in the UK for secondary, because we were moving around so much, and stayed until I was 18.

It was a really good school, it clearly made me who I am and I ought to be very grateful, because my parents worked tremendously hard to send me there – but going to boarding school wasn’t a great thing for me. Living abroad had been great, and I’m very much a family person, so I think I would have been happier being home.

I remember how those grey, Sunday afternoons felt like the longest hours. We had nothing to do, and were barely even allowed to watch telly. If you want a picture of my boarding school experience, it’s sneaking downstairs, using the kettle to make a Cup-a-Soup, smuggling it upstairs in a hot water bottle and feeling like a master criminal. That was me in the 80s.

In love with Dante

I had a brilliant Italian teacher, who was wildly enthusiastic and eager to convey how amazing Italy was. She was in love with Dante, and managed to light a fire of curiosity around Italian literature in me, which is what I went on to study at university. There was also an English teacher who took it upon herself to set up these poetry, literature and debating clubs.

She’d take us to reading events at other schools, notably boys’ schools, and I once really embarrassed myself when we had to recite a poem we’d written. I thought I’d copy and translate an Italian poem that no one would know, which turned out to be a WWI poem with loads of references to Italian rivers, prompting a teacher at one of these schools to ask ‘Why did you choose to write about the Isonzo?…

I don’t remember getting much ‘careers advice’ as such. At one stage I thought I’d be journalist. It wasn’t until I got to Oxford that I realised I loved acting. At my school you could only do music or drama, and I did lots of instruments. For a while I had ambitions to be a musician, but then had a ‘courage fail’ in the first round of Young Musician of the Year, having entered as a flautist. I just didn’t go, convinced that I couldn’t do it, and remember thinking that I’d have to find something else.

What being at an all girls school does give you, though, is the freedom to be silly. There’s no sense in which you’re being watched by boys and feeling like you have to impress them, which definitely helped me develop my sense of the absurd. Making the other girls laugh became a favourite pastime, which clearly fed into Smack the Pony later on.

Keep the fires burning

The oldest of my three sons, Ollie, has got Down syndrome and is now at secondary. We’ve had a very bumpy ride with his education, during which he’s been excluded from two schools, and now attends a special school. There were multiple factors involved in why those placements didn’t work, but I’d been very optimistic regarding his outcomes in Y6, at the end of a very successful primary placement. Since then we’ve had issue after issue. It’s heartbreaking, but I don’t know what else we could have done.

There are some amazing teachers at my youngest son’s school – particularly a history teacher, who I recognise as being just in love with her subject. When she starts talking about the English Civil War, you can see her light up and that enthusiasm catching among the kids. We have to take care of our teachers and keep their fires burning.

Sally Phillips is an ambassador for the children’s charity Fegans, which provides professional therapeutic services to schools, and affordable, accessible support for children, parents and school staff. For more information, contact 01892 538 288 or visit

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