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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hughes

Boarding Schools: It Never Did Me Any Harm ...

Updated: Jun 21




A few years ago, I wrote a blog, ‘Time To Abolish Boarding Schools?’ It was less of a question more of a statement, and I was surprised by the response I received to it. 


I have now had hundreds of emails from people wanting to share their boarding school experiences with me; experiences of trauma, abandonment and grief, and the impact of that on their adulthood and their relationships. I have been invited onto radio and podcasts to talk about the topic. I have also received polite yet firm 'warnings' not to challenge the boarding school system.


Of course, all this makes me want to highlight the issue even more, and see real change happen. There is a long way to go, but I do believe that the culture of sending children - some as young as 7-years-old - to boarding schools will come to an end soon.


I hold a clear, science-based argument about why sending children to boarding school is psychologically, emotionally and physically detrimental to a developing sense of self, and therefore has no place in a progressive society.


To become functioning adults, we need ‘good enough’ attachment. No family is perfect, hence ‘good enough’.


'Good enough’ attachment can be defined as a daily dose of eye contact, skin-to-skin touch/cuddling, listening, empathy, and the co-regulation of nervous systems - love and care basically. This only happens with a significant attachment figure, such as a parent /parents or care-giver.


Boarding schools are no replacement for parental/family/home attachment, they do not claim to be, and just as well, we do not want boarding school teachers touching children - and 'therapy alpacas’ - I kid you not - do not make up for it.


What this means is that for 7 months of the year, the boarding school child has zero 'good enough' attachment. 


The experience of zero attachment, which involves separation from primary attachment figures, constant scrutiny/captivity, discipline and pastoral care as opposed to love and attachment, and a potentially hostile/unsafe environment, can be defined as psychological and physical trauma.


Without ‘good enough’ attachment, children are unable to self-regulate their feelings, they become preoccupied with threat, and they are less able to empathise with, and be tolerant of, others. Interesting isn’t it that many of our politicians are products of the boarding school system. Just saying. 


Children are sent away to boarding school at two ages: 7-years-old and 13-years-old. From a developmental perspective both ages are extremely significant. During the first, the prefrontal cortex is developing according to its environment, shaping cognitive, emotions and moral development. This age is way too young for extreme separation. Early adolescent brains are also highly sensitive to emotional trauma and deprivation and need a fine balance between closeness and independence.  There are other factors to be considered too, such as neurodiversity.


Boarding schools make a loud song and dance about ‘mental heath’ and ‘pastoral care’, whilst totally missing the point. Children need ‘good enough’ attachment first and foremost.


Of course many teenagers want to get away from their parents, and for this reason, boarding in sixth form or upper fifth (Year 11) could be an option for the teenager / young adult. This would need to be done in a collaborative way with their parents and school, and a full psychological assessment would need to be part of this process. The option of changing their decision / flexibility is essential too, whether that is from full boarding to weekly boarding or to end boarding at any time.


Now you might imagine that people come to therapy to talk about the brutality and abuse they experienced at boarding school. This is sometimes the case, but what I am more likely to hear is, ‘It never did me any harm. I had a wonderful time at boarding school ... loads of chums, great sports facilities.’ 


Of course, not everyone was bullied, not everyone suffered at the hands of sadistic teachers and sexual predators. Comfort at boarding schools is found in friendships and alliances. It's true, boarding schools usually have great facilities.


So why have you come to therapy? I ask. 


And then slowly another story comes out about relationships that barely function, of feelings that have long been unexpressed, of conflict with family members and colleagues. Often there are physical health issues and conditions. These may have been soothed with coping mechanisms - food, alcohol, sex etc - that cause further problems.


There is often a confusion about their place in the world, of difference, diversity, gender and class. Not everyone moves from one panelled hall to another, some have to enter the real world. This can be problematic if you are not prepared for it.


There may be an intergenerational aspect to all of this. For many people, their parents and grandparents went to boarding school. There may be a family history of depression, emotional avoidance and fractured relationships. Charles Spencer, in his autobiographical book A Very Private School, makes a good point. Boarding schools create a privileged world where parents live parallel lives to their children. Research proves that attachment deficits change our DNA structure. This is chronic trauma.


Of course the 'privileged' child does not complain. The last thing they will do is challenge their boarding school experience. They have grown up in a culture where they think a lack of care and the paucity of attachment is normal, and that it benefitted them. They rarely question structures, privileges and givens. Interestingly, the paucity of good enough attachment at home can make boarding school feel like a 'safe place', because they know nothing different.


The 'privileged' child does not ask the right questions, but they feel that something is wrong. Their bodies tell them something is wrong.


To start thriving, people who have been to boarding school will need to develop an open, curious mind. This can be hard. It is not for everyone. The ‘it never did me any harm’ narrative is entrenched. But that is a shame narrative. We are not indebted to these institutions. The shame is theres, not ours.


I appreciate the complexity within all of this, but I also truly believe that when we commit to an exploration of our experiences, we allow ourselves the possibility of better relationships, empathy for self and others, and a life-long self-care that is deeply political. This is thriving. 


On that note, isn’t it about time the Royal Family break the cycle of sending their children to boarding school and of ending the chronic trauma that has blighted them for generations? How many future monarchs need to talk about the brutality of their experience, and the lack of parental attachment before the next generation gets the message? As Catherine, the Princess of Wales is on record for saying, ‘how children are raised will impact the society we will become.’







Further reading and research:


https://www.boardingschoolsurvivors.co.uk/


https://www.piers-cross.com/ - Piers is a coach who works with boarding school survivors and their partners.



What is PEPF?


PEPF is an organisation whose purpose is three-fold.1. To address the lack of comprehensive and objective data and information on the policies, operations and finances of UK private schools and other forms of private education such as tutoring.2. To bring evidence and fresh thinking to the issues of the educational and social impact of private schools and other forms of private education, and their presence and effect on UK institutions and governance.3. To enhance public knowledge and discussion of these issues and propose ways forward which improve education policy.



Books


Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged' Child - Professor Joy Schaverien


The Making of Them - Nick Duffell


Trauma, Abandonment & Privilege: a guide to therapeutic work with boarding school survivors - Thurstine Basset and Nick Duffell


Sad Little Men: How Public Schools Failed Britain - Richard Beard


A Secure Base - John Bowlby



The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did). Philippa Perry



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