Time To Abolish Boarding Schools?
Updated: Nov 16
'I was remembering my breakdown at boarding school, the experience of calling home in the middle of the night, 'please can I come home, please can I come home?' and being told, 'no, you can't come home.' Then, as things got worse and worse and worse, I forced myself to stay. But something had changed in me. My breakdown was like a furnace and what was burned away was any belief in my own feelings.' - The Examined Life - Stephen Grosz.
There is an episode of Channel 4's First Dates, in which a 'posh' young man, as he describes himself, is looking for love.
In the pre-date interview, he talks about his experience of boarding school: ‘had a wonderful time ... lots of chums ... just like Harry Potter' ..., and then rather wistfully he adds, ‘didn’t do emotions.’
The reason he was on the show was that despite his confidence and perceived success in life, he had found it hard to make relationships work, which was at odds with how he, and others, viewed himself.
This got me thinking about a subject that is close to my heart: what is the psychological, personal and societal cost of sending children, some as young as seven-years-old, to boarding school, and why do parents continue to do that?
My intention here is not to pathologize people who have been to boarding school, after all no two people will have had the same experience, however, many people who went through the boarding school system, and later come to psychotherapy, often talk about it being an unhappy, brutal experience, that has left them emotionally and relationally wounded. Even those who enjoyed a childhood of cricket pitches and panelled halls believing it gave them a career advantage, often acknowledge that their boarding school experience did not prepare them for dealing with social difference and emotional complexity.
70 years of child development research has highlighted the need for 'good enough' attachment. Children need to feel loved, and they need to feel safe. They need home. This comes about through the daily interaction with parents or a parent, as well as siblings, wider family, and community. When children experience this, they develop a functioning sense of self. They are able to self-regulate their feelings, and in the words of the psychologist Heinz Kohut, they 'are less self-absorbed and less preoccupied with threats ... this enables them to focus on, empathise with, and be tolerant of others'.
I am not saying that every childhood home or family is perfect, hence 'good enough', and of course families come in all shapes and sizes, but I believe that the alternative, the abdicating of responsibility and the intentional handing over of a child's psychological, emotional and physical well-being to an institution and strangers, where there is no love, is not the answer. It is in fact a form of abuse.
Let me be clear here, boarding schools do not offer the love and care a child needs, they do not offer ‘attachment cues’, for one simple reason: that is not their role. ‘Outstanding pastoral care’ is not the same, though in a sinister way it is being pitched like that.
The fact is, boarding schools are no better than 'posh childrens’ homes’. Putting a child into foster care is always seen as the last resort, so why do wealthy parents pay to do that voluntarily?
It’s interesting that people who say they enjoyed boarding school often reveal that their home life was hell, that boarding school was an escape from the chaos and abuse. Of course, that is an issue for social services, though social services rarely get involved with middle class or wealthy families.
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 still referred to by their surnames, which is an unfamiliar, dehumanising experience.
In such a setting, often hundreds of miles away from home, childhood becomes a Darwinian struggle; a wall of silence may exist, and because these children are told that they are 'privileged', they do not complain.
Boarding schools claim to be safe and secure environments, but they are not. They only need to 'have regard' to the safeguarding standards state schools implement. They are not signed up to the 'Safer Schools Network', and 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'. Back in November 2020, Ampleforth College was ordered by the government not to admit new pupils due to 'serious failings' (the litany of failings continues as of 2022).
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, this age is way too young for such extreme separation. Early adolescent brains are highly sensitive to emotional trauma and deprivation, the experience of which can have lasting imprints on the brain.
Trauma can be defined as the threat to life and the uncertainty of psychological survival; and whilst this might sound extreme, where there is fractured attachment and abandonment this is the outcome. The experience of boarding school, which involves the loss of primary attachment figures, homesickness, captivity, repetition of the losses, and relentless scrutiny can be defined as complex trauma and even PTSD.
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 emotional 'exile', where the child may lose hope and trust. She explains how a child may experience this:
‘The sudden loss of attachment figures (parents, siblings, pets and even 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 do this to survive, and they may create a defensive, protective and even aggressive ways 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’, the outcome are children who are 'psychically wounded'.
I would argue that this starts long before children are sent to boarding schools. To prepare for that, mothers, and it is usually mothers, begin to detach, in the belief that this is necessary to 'toughen up' the child who is about to be sent away. Whilst this may be distressing and confusing for the child, they will not complain or question, believing themselves to be special. They may be told that ‘sacrifices’ have been made to secure them the best education possible; the guilt, shame and sense of self-worth based on achievement starts early.
As adults, the boarding school child may internalise the trauma of fractured attachment and abandonment, and in response they may develop a controlling, critical and individualistic outlook on life. Some believe this stands them in good stead for business or leadership. I would disagree. We do not need these kind of leaders.
When the psychological self is famished, people end up ‘self-holding’; a stiff upper lip and all that. They may resort to 'compartmentalised' ways of being, and a focus on material gain, status and grandiosity. When the bottom lip trembles, emotional release may be found in the dysfunctional use of drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, shopping and the self-sabotage of relationships. When they hit rock bottom, the message they may hear is 'what is wrong with you' when of course the question is 'what has happened to you?'
There is no quantitative research into suicide rates and boarding schools but from qualitative research and my own observation, there is a significant correlation. (I know of at least six from my old school).
I cannot stress how important it is for children to value others and to develop connectedness. Through this, a rounded human being emerges. The boarding school system encourages gender norms and elitism. Do not be fooled that it is about education. It is about superiority. Some children do not encounter the opposite sex for the duration of their schooling. In a closed environment this is dysfunctional. Social difference is stark and rarely acknowledged beyond charity. But all the while the golden prize is held aloft, and the implicit message is that these children are golden, special and better than other people.
The outcome of this is narcissistically wounded adults. Since the structure of our society is still based on, and dominated by people who have been to public schools, we can see the catastrophic implications for society.
But have 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, or at least, when matron gives them their phone at the end of the day. There is also the option of more liberal, 'divergent thinking' boarding schools.
This totally misses the point.
Children need loving and secure attachment. Boarding schools create a psychological and physical exile which disrupts love and connection. A new state of the art technology centre or the 'old boys network' does not compensate.
As I have proposed, boarding school perpetuate systems and structures that are not relevant or suitable for the 21st Century. Let us remind ourselves that how children are raised will impact the society we will become.
Boarding School Syndrome - http://184.108.40.206/joyschaverien.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/LostforwordsTTApr11.pdf
Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged' Child - Professor Joy Schaverien
The Making of Them - Nick Duffell
Sad Little Men: How Public Schools Failed Britain - Richard Beard
A Secure Base - John Bowlby