Time To Abolish Boarding Schools?
Updated: Apr 17
There is an episode of First Dates which stays with me. It involved a 'posh' young man, as he described himself, who was looking for love.
In the pre-date interview, he talked about his experience of boarding school: ‘had a wonderful time ... lots of chums ... just like Harry Potter' .. and then rather wistfully he added, ‘didn’t do emotions.’
The reason he was on the show was that despite his perceived ‘success’ in life, he had found it hard to make relationships work. And this got me thinking about a subject that is close to my heart: why do we send children, some as young as seven-years-old, to boarding school and what is the psychological cost of doing this?
My intention here is not to pathologize people who have been to boarding school, afterall no two people will have had the same experience. However, many people who went to boarding school, and later come to psychotherapy, talk about it being an unhappy, often brutal experience, which has had a detrimental impact on how they function in life and their abilility to have meaningful relationships.
70 years of child development research has hightlighted the need for 'good enough' parenting which means care, connection, consistency and loving attachment. I am not saying that every childhood home or family is perfect, hence 'good enough', but I believe that the alternative, the intentional handing over of a child's psychological, emotional and physical well-being to an institution and strangers, is not the answer.
Let me be clear here, boarding schools do not offer the love and care a child needs, they are no better than a posh childrens' home and whilst they claim to uphold rigorous safeguarding standards, the reality is, independent schools only need to 'have regard' to these standards. Nor are they are not signed up to the 'Safer Schools Network'. Ofsted has highlighted common weaknesses including: 'failure to maintain single central records ... insufficient child protection training ... the failure to complete key assessments ... and the failure by governing bodies to monitor and review policies to protect children'. As of November 2020, Ampleforth College, the Catholic 'Eton' has been ordered by the government not to amit new pupils due to 'serious failings'. A highly critical inspection report found that the school did not meet standards for safeguarding, leadership, or complaints handling, nor had it combated bullying.
Children sent away to boarding schools, both boys and girls, live in an unsafe environment; they may experience bullying, violent initiation ceremonies and sexual predators in a 24/7 ‘closed’ environment, which has very little accountability. A wall of silence may exist and because these children believe they are 'privileged', they do not complain.
Consider too, that just as the child's sense of 'self' is developing, their identity is taken away from them quite literally: in many of these institutions, children are referred to by their surnames, which for most is an unfamiliar experience. Imagine how dehumanising that must be?
In her brilliant book, Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged Child’ Professor Joy Schaverien writes about boarding schools being a form of 'exile', the child becomes emotionally and physically 'homeless' at key developmental stages.
Children are usually 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 develops according to its environment, shaping cognitive, emotions and moral development. Adolescent brains are highly sensitive to emotional trauma and deprivation, the experience of which can have lasting imprints on the brain.
Traumatic experiences involve a threat to life or safety. This might sound extreme, but where a child is not being cared for by their primary care giver, the threat to life is present. The experience of boarding school, which involves fractured attachment, abandonment, homesickness, captivity, repetition of the losses and dissociation where the child may lose hope and trust, can lead to psychological stress and trauma and even PTSD.
Schaeverien explains how a child may experience this:
‘The sudden loss of attachment figures (parents, siblings, pets and toys) causes the child to protect him or herself. For the first time in their life the child may be in a situation where there is no intimate contact, no love. Even when not mistreated, being left in the care of strangers is traumatic.’
However, children adapt; they can be surprisingly resilient. They do this to survive. They may create a defensive and protective way of being which involves not showing vulnerability or emotionality, which is reinforced by the ethos of the system, since these things are considered ‘bad’ or ‘weak’. They may seek out approval and comfort from older boys and teachers, which may feel shameful or confusing. The result are children who are 'psychically wounded'; for these children, childhood becomes a Darwinian struggle.
People who have been to boarding school may develop a certain charisma or polish, but this is often just a highly constructed veneer. This may get them so far, but when relational complexity and difference is encountered they may struggle to connect. Having internalised their trauma of fractured attachment and abandonment, the idea of intimacy or relational depth becomes terrifying; this can lead to domineering, controlling and often self-sabotaging behaviour. With their psychological self famished, they may end up ‘self-holding’; a stiff upper lip and all that and when this becomes overwhelming they may resort to 'compartmentalised' ways of being; a focus on material gain, grandiosity and status. Emotional release may be found through 'self-self-soothing habits' such drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, shopping; when they eventually hit rock bottom, the message they will hear is 'what is wrong with you?' but of course the question is 'what happened to you?'
There are lots of arguments supporting boarding schools and I am going to dismantle these here:
Some people want their children to have ‘the best educational advantages’ and they argue that boarding schools offer just that.
This is a myth. From an educational perspective, the reality is that many boarding schools offer a pretty average or even sub-standard education. Fee paying schools have the resources to spoon feed pupils. In this environment, teenage years become a cognitive battleground of competition and relentless tests, backed up by helicopter parenting.
Of course, this is all done in the name of meritocracy. Clearly, there are some flaws to this argument as only the wealthy can afford to go to boarding schools. Over the past 40 years, the theory of meritocracy has become subverted by a 'cognitive elitism'. A sense of hubris amongst 'winners' is encouraged, failure is seen as the worst outcome. An underlying message here is that only priviledged, wealthy and successful people matter.
As for extra-curriculum activities, most state schools offer a variety of opportunities that involve the community and beyond. Children from my local comprehensive are deeply embedded in the local community and have performed on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, and climbed to First Base of Everest. Boarding schools on the other hand rely on their own facilities and more traditional social institutions for their wider experiences; there is little integration with the diversity of local communities.
Private boarding schools perpetuate a sense of ‘them and us’. A friend's child, who had been sent to boarding school, told me it had never occured to him to speak with the kitchen staff, since that was not encouraged. He admited to being judgemental about children who went to local comprehensive schools. This was never questioned or challenged, rather it was condoned, sometimes explicitly.
Then there is the issue of different sexes. Children who have been to same sex boarding schools often have no contact with difference until sixth form or university. Let's make no mistake, male only boarding schools encourage masculine toxicity such as male elitism, misogyny and insular, patriarchal view points. In 2021, the Metropolitan police said it had received reports of sexual offences after a website had published dozen's of allegations made by girls of 'misogyny, harrassment, abuse and assault' at private boarding and day schools. Currently, Eton, Fettes, Dulwich College, Westminster College and St Paul's have been accused of a 'rape culture' with thousands of anonymous claims of sexual abuse. For more information see everyonesinvited.uk
Some may argue that boarding school is preferable to staying at home with unstable or otherwise dysfunctional parents and families. That is an issue for social services, not boarding schools.
There is a held belief that boarding schools make children resilient, that the experience 'toughens them up'. Where to start with this one. This is a system that pits individual against individual, and if you think, well, that’s how the world works, maybe there lies the problem?
Boarding schools perpetuate values and ways of being which as a society we now recognise, do not serve people well and again the research will prove my point.
Single sex boarding schools for boys perpetuate the myths of masculinity, which include the belief in invulnerability, certainty, self-sufficiency and objectivity and that only competition enhances performance.
Let us remember, according to research by The Samaritans - suicide rates of men - regardless of age group are 2 to 3 times higher than women, with 35-44 year-olds at the highest risk - closely followed by 45-54 year-olds. One reason for this is that men compare themselves to a ‘gold standard’ which prizes power, control and invulnerability.
Most boarding schools were set up by the ruling class to churn out men to run the Empire and women to support those men. Despite not having an empire any longer, the system of the country still runs, by and large, by this patriarchal formula; there is still a strong belief in the primacy of traditional institutions and the superiority of privileged, white men.
But has the world of boarding schools changed? One argument is that boarding schools today are forward thinking and progressive: corporal punishment is a thing of the past and pupils have mobile phones so that they can be in touch with home whenever they want.
This totally misses the point.
Children need secure and consistent attachment. They need love. Boarding schools do not offer this and a new state of the art technology centre does not compensate.
As I have proposed, boarding school perpetuate systems and structures that do not serve human beings well: patriarchy, privilege and power are an entitlement which need significant tweaking if we are to have a fair and just society. Afterall, how children are raised will impact the society we will become.
I recently met a young person who had recently left my old school. I shared with her my experience of the bullying that went on there, 'though I imagine that's all changed now?’ I asked her. Her eyes filled with tears, ‘it's still the same'. It is heartbreaking to hear this and it has to stop. There is no place in a civilised society for boarding schools, we have to end the boarding school system.
To read more about Boarding School Syndrome - http://188.8.131.52/joyschaverien.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/LostforwordsTTApr11.pdf