• Richard Hughes

Time To Abolish Boarding Schools?

Updated: Sep 7

Last night on First Dates there was a young man, from what he described as a ‘posh’ background, 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 ... like Harry Potter' .. and then rather wistfully he added, ‘didn’t do emotions.’

The reason he was on the show was that despite all his perceived ‘success’ in life - he found it hard to make relationships work. And this got me thinking about a subject that is close to my heart: why do we still put children, some as young as seven-years-old, through the boarding school system?

My intention here is not to pathologize people who've 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 ordeal, which has had a detrimental impact on their lives.

All the clinical research - 70 years worth - points to children needing consistency and attachment - which home offers. I am not saying that every childhood home is perfect, far from it, but I believe that the alternative of intentionally handing over a child's emotional and physical well-being to an institution is not the answer.

Let me be clear here, boarding schools are posh childrens' care homes and whilst they claim to uphold rigorous safeguarding standards, the reality is, independent schools only need to 'have regard' to these standards. Ofsted has highlighted common weaknesses including: 'failure to maintain single central records, insufficient child protection training, key assessments are not completed, failure by governing body to monitor and review policies to protect children'.

Children sent away to boarding schools are potentially unsafe, because they may experience bullying and sexual predators in a ‘closed’ environment which has very little accountability. A wall of silence can exist and because these children believe they are 'privileged', they don't complain.

To any parent considering boarding school for their 7 or 12 year-old, I implore them to think about this before they hand over the mental and physical well-being of their child to unaccountable strangers.

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'. As an adult this sense of 'exile' remains, impacting all aspects of their life. And whilst people who have been to boarding school can have a certain charisma or polish, this can be a highly constructed defence. The underlying pattern is problems with intimacy, an inability to talk about feelings and a cutting off from deep relationships. They may do a lot of ‘self-holding’, a stiff upper lip and all that, and when this becomes overwhelming they may resort to 'compartmentalised' behaviour, a focus on material gain and self-medication with alcohol, drugs and sex.

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 environments shaping cognitive, emotional and moral development. Adolescent brains are highly sensitive to emotional trauma and deprivation, the experience of which can have lasting imprints on the developmental brain.

Consider too, that just as a sense of 'self' is developing, identity is taken away from the child sent to boarding school. This is a literal experience: in many of these institutions, children are called by their surnames, which for most is an unfamiliar way of being referred to. This is an alien experience. Imagine how dehumanising that must be?

Without doubt, being sent away at these key developmental stages can be traumatising. However children do have the ability to adapt. They do this to survive. They 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’.

Schaeverien writes:

‘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.’

The anatomy of this trauma is 'abandonment, bereavement (homesickness), captivity, repetition of the losses and dissociation'. The child loses hope.

There are lots of arguments supporting boarding schools and I am going to dismantle those 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 substandard education. With the resources and fees they are able to spoon feed pupils to get top results. In this environment, teenage years become a cognitive battleground of competition and relentless tests, backed up by helicopter parents. The result are children who are 'psychically wounded'. Childhood become a Darwinian struggle.

Of course this is all done in the name of meritocracy, that success is available to all and the key to this is education. 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 priviledged, wealthy and successful people are worth more than anyone else.

As for extra-curriculum activities, all schools now offer amazing opportunities and if anything boarding schools can be insular, relying on their own facilities.

Setting children up to move from the panelled halls of boarding school to the panelled halls of a top university to the panelled halls of Lincoln Inn Fields to the panelled halls of a Pall Mall club is only available to a tiny minority, a minority within a minority; it is another myth that this privileged world is open to everyone from a boarding school background.

However private boarding schools do create a sense of ‘them and us’. It is a segregated environment.

People who have been to boarding school, talk about the difficulty of being able to speak to the opposite sex - for the obvious reason, they did not come in contact with any until sixth form or beyond. How can this be right in this day and age?

The same goes with different backgrounds. Many people who have been to boarding school report that it never occurred to them to speak to the school's domestic staff simply because that was not encouraged - or they admit they were judgemental of children who went to comprehensive schools in the local town. This was never questioned or challenged, if anything it is condoned on an implicit level.

Some will argue that boarding school is preferable to staying at home with unstable, unwell or otherwise disadvantaged parents. That is an issue for social services - not boarding schools.

My big issue with boarding schools is that they perpetuate values and ways of being which as a society we now recognise, do not serve people well.

Single sex boarding schools for boys perpetuate the myths of masculinity - which include the myth of invulnerability, certainty, self-sufficiency, objectivity and that competition enhances performance. This is a system that pits individual against individual - and if you think, well, that’s how the world works - maybe that is the problem?

And 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 invincibility.

Most boarding schools were set up by the ruling class to churn out men to run the Empire. Despite not having an empire any longer, the system still runs on this formula. Because of course the corporate and political world runs on this formula.

A female friend of mine - who went to girls boarding school - once said to me, ‘but I had a great time at boarding school, it was all midnight feasts and hockey matches.’

‘Well of course, you did’ I said, ‘because the system has not been created for women to become leaders; there just is not the same pressure on them to succeed.' If anything girls boarding schools were - and still are - more like finishing schools to create wives who will support their husbands.

But has it changed? One argument is that boarding schools today are a different world: 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. Boarding schools do not supply this and a new state of the art multi-media centre does not compensate.

Boarding school perpetuate systems and structures that do not serve human beings well: patriarchy, privilege and power are an entitlement which need dismantling if we are to have a fair and just society.

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?’ Her eyes filled with tears, ‘it is still the same'. She told me she had been bullied badly. It is heartbreaking to hear this, and it has to stop. We have to stop sending our children away, we have to end the boarding school system.

To read more about Boarding School Syndrome -


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