Time To Abolish Boarding Schools?
Updated: Nov 1
'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 was at odds with how he viewed himself.
This got me thinking about a subject that is close to my heart: what is the psychological, relational and societal cost of sending children, some as young as seven-years-old, to boarding school and why do some parents continue to do this?
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 wounded. Even those who enjoyed a childhood of cricket pitches and panelled halls and believe that it gave them a career advantage, acknowledge that boarding school did not prepare them for dealing with difference and emotional complexity.
70 years of child development research has highlighted the need for 'good enough' attachment which means good enough parental care, connection and consistency. Children want to feel safe and they want to be loved. When they experience this, they develop a balanced 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', 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, is a form of abuse.
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. Putting a child into care is always seen as the last resort, so why do wealthy parents pay to do that voluntarily?
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, 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 uphold safeguarding standards but the reality is that they need to only 'have regard' to these standards. 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'. In November 2020, Ampleforth College was ordered by the government not to amit new pupils due to 'serious failings'.
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 dissociation where the child may lose hope and trust, 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'. 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 - 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'.
As adults they may internalise the trauma of fractured attachment and abandonment and in response they may develop a controlling, critical and individualistic outlook on life. Whilst some believe this may stand them in good stead for business or leadership, when intimacy, relational complexity and social difference are encountered, they may find it challenging.
With their psychological self famished, they may 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. Emotional release may be found in the dysfunctional use of drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, shopping and the self-sabotage of relationships. When they eventually hit rock bottom, the message they may hear is 'what is wrong with you' but of course the question should be 'what has happened to you?'
There is no research into suicide rates and boarding schools but I suspect, and from anecdotal evidence and my own experience, I know of at least six from my old school, there is a significant correlation.
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 toxic gender expectations, superiority and elitism and the 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. There is also the option of more liberal, 'divergent thinking' boarding schools.
This totally misses the point.
Children need secure and consistent attachment. They need to feel safe and they need to be loved. This helps them become functioning adults. Boarding schools create a psychological and physical exile and a new state of the art technology centre or the 'old boy 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.
To read more about Boarding School Syndrome - http://22.214.171.124/joyschaverien.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/LostforwordsTTApr11.pdf