Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Boarding blues

As someone who spent five years at boarding school, I applaud the campaign by Boarding Concern to keep younger children out of such schools to avoid lasting mental and emotional damage.

Many psychologists are now convinced that children who are suddenly wrenched out of their customary family environment and left to fend for themselves among strangers with only a passing interest in them suffer emotional injury that hampers their entire adult life.

They can suffer a host of negative emotions that are never properly dealt with. They can feel abandoned, betrayed, neglected, demoralised, bewildered, shocked, angry, sad, vulnerable and distressed. But nobody takes any notice. They're just expected to bury their misery, toughen up and pretend everything's fine.

The family members who would normally validate their feelings and give them the support they need aren't around, and the school staff are unwilling or unable to step into their shoes.

The result is that many boarders leave school emotionally repressed, and permanently distrustful and insecure. All that leads to serious problems with relationships and personal growth. Over and over again, the spouses of such ex-boarders (usually wives) comment on their inadequate personalities and emotional illiteracy.

Personally I can vouch for that. Although I'm much more in touch with my own, and other people's, feelings than I used to be, I'm still far from emotionally fluent and I still have a lot of trouble expressing what's going on inside me.

The staff at my school never showed any interest in my emotional well-being and left me to sink or swim in an atmosphere of rugged masculinity.

I'm glad the psychological pain of boarding is finally being recognised and I hope fewer children will be exposed to it. But it's depressing to learn that right now boarding schools are as popular as ever and just as many thoughtless parents are dumping their children into these destructive institutions (around 74,000 at the last count). They seem to be wilfully blind to the emotional harm that's being done to innocent hearts and minds.


  1. Hello Nick:

    We are in almost total agreement with all that you say here and also write from direct experience. There are, perhaps, the odd few who, for whatever reason, do benefit from a boarding school education but this is generally because of a difficult home situation from which the child is, possibly, better removed.

  2. In my opinion, you're a lot more emotionally expressive than most men. You've talked a lot about how much you hated school. I wouldn't dream of sending my son to such a school.

    Do you keep in touch with any classmates from your boarding school?

    It seems to be more of a UK thing...I don't know anyone who went to boarding school.

  3. Jane and Lance: Even if a child is escaping from a difficult family, I'm not sure boarding would be an improvement, given what we now know about the emotional turmoil it involves.

  4. Susie: Thanks for that! No, I never kept in touch with any of my old schoolmates. Very much because of that lack of emotional connection with others that's typical of boarding schools.

    It's a very UK thing. Many senior politicians went to boarding school so it still has a totally unjustified cachet. And it explains a lot of the politicians' callousness towards ordinary folk.

  5. I've only read of the very upper elite/old money sending their children to boarding school. What is the reason for its popularity there?

  6. Bijoux: Boarding schools are popular with the middle classes generally. My parents weren't wealthy, they scrimped and saved to send me to a private boarding school. Money sadly mis-spent in my opinion.

    I think what attracts people is the idea that a boarding school/private school builds character, independence and responsibility. The irony is that my school was rigidly authoritarian and independence was exactly what it didn't encourage.

    And a number of private schools have been involved in sex-abuse scandals recently.

  7. I can only imagine. Five years in an unfeeling environment.

    It puts my five years of being "abandoned" by my mom in a different light -- five years that I spent in a warm and loving home, the home of my grandparents. I've long since lost all but a bit of residual resentment over it.

    Five years in an uncaring, rigidly authoritarian environment that your parents scrimped and saved for -- I'll gladly take my five years with Grandma and Grandpa.

  8. Mike: Yes, I'm sure your five years with Grandma and Grandpa were a lot healthier than my years at boarding school. I think the general public is still deeply ignorant about what really goes on at these supposedly superior schools.

  9. In my formative years I lived in Winchester, and because I lived very close to the famous Winchester School I attended as a day pupil and lived at home, so I had the advantage of still being in the bosom of my family.

    What I do remember is seeing the upset and distress of my fellow school chums who were boarders there, uprooted from their family and in a strange environment, probably for the first time in their short lives. They found themselves at the mercy of the prefects and teachers who didn't seem to care a jot about them.

    Many a time I would find a friend hiding in the toilets or some remote corner of the quad crying because they were finding life at boarding school so hard to take.

    I fully understand how you must have felt, although at the time I must admit I didn't understand why they were so upset because I was happy there and as a day pupil I didn't have any fagging duties after classes. I went home.

  10. Keith: That's all very typical of the boarding experience - the upset and distress and the uncaring prefects and teachers. I didn't hide in the toilets though, I just bottled up my feelings and feigned the required masculine blankness.

  11. We had an unusual situation in our family and I see the results of it still. One of my brothers was sent to boarding school, thus wrenched from the rest of the family and missing out on connecting strongly with one of us. He has not done well in life out of all my brothers in all aspects, financial, emotional and physical.
    I feel so sad for those lost years.


  12. I've read enough stories about those schools to thoroughly agree with you!

  13. www: I think that's also typical, that ex-boarders tend to fumble the rest of their lives and not excel at anything. I don't know a single ex-pupil of my school who's made a name for himself or done anything special in adult life. They/we remain very much in survival mode.

    It's a tragic waste of human potential.

    Jean: I can't understand why boarding schools are still thought of so highly by people who really ought to know better.

  14. Not to be too delicate about it, Nick: I think boarding young children amounting to parental neglect.

    I remember meeting my future (English) in-laws for the first time. They took us on a drive (round Surrey). They were so very proud to show me the lavish boarding school their son was sent to at age eight. EIGHT! Naturally, as I do, I said something, no doubt tactless. Yes, that taken aback I was. Incredulous. Eight?

    Still, in those days (his father was in the army, stationed all over the world) a woman's place was at her husband's side, not with her children. I know - from her own mouth - that my mother-in-law was gutted to leave her son behind. Many many years later my father-in-law confided that maybe, just maybe, it hadn't be the right thing to do. Call it a pang of regret.

    I wouldn't call FOS emotionally stunted. But he had quite unrealistic expectations. Never shall I forget his line: "MY parents NEVER rowed". Of course they didn't, insert snort. If you have your son at home just for a brief stint the sun keeps shining and he never learns how to cope with benign conflict.

    I am convinced that the famous British "stiff upper lip" is entirely fed by boarding their children. Starving them of affection in the process.

    Fact is, and forgive me for spilling over in your comment box, that no one is as interested in your child as a parent is. A child needs to come HOME after school, be able to share both sorrow and achievement with their, well, mother. Being soothed. Yes, sure, there is always "Matron" at these places. But Matron is not your mother.

    FOS once mentioned his ambition to send our son to one of Britain's finest. Over my dead body, I said. It was never mentioned again.

    One doesn't have children to then leave them to their own devices. I could cry, Nick. I could cry. Not least when I imagine the boy you once were.

    I could apologize over this emotional outburst. But then, see above, I don't have a stiff upper lip and carry my heart (and everyone else's) on my sleeve. Where it belongs.

    Same heart going out to you.


  15. Ursula: Thanks for those kind words. Indeed, the boy I once was before I was sent to boarding school. My father was sent to boarding school at seven. Seven, can you imagine? That explains a lot about his behaviour.

    I'm sure the stiff upper lip has a lot to do with boarding schools. And also the general masculine tradition of burying your emotions, though hopefully that's easing a bit now.

    And yes, there was a Matron in my boarding house, but strictly for physical health reasons. She wasn't interested in emotional or mental health.

  16. Ursula: I'm unable to comment on your blog at present. Wordpress keeps saying "Duplicate comment detected" and refusing my comment.

  17. I went to a British boarding school my last year of high school and even though I was an older teen I chafed at the rules and felt lonely. But it's far worse for younger kids. I can't even imagine sending my boys away - it's hard enough when they leave for University!

  18. Agent: Rules indeed. At my school, the daily routine was rigid from waking-up to going to bed. You even had a strict time limit for getting dressed and ready for breakfast.

    My sister went to a day school and was quite happy there.

  19. Sorry about your comment being lost in the ether, Nick. I did check the spam folder. Sometimes comments do get decanted in there for no discernible reason. You are nowhere to be found. Please do try again.


  20. Ursula: Still no luck. I keep getting "Duplicate comment detected". So where exactly is this invisible comment it keeps detecting?

  21. To a large extent, the kind of boarding school that a child is sent to will make all the difference to the way the child turns out. There are some remarkable schools in India, including one to which our son went for three years, that produces very sound individuals. You might like to investigate http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rishi_Valley_School and there are many more like this in India, including JKF run ones in other places.

  22. Ramana: There may well be some boarding schools that are genuinely concerned for their pupils' well-being and the pupils are happy there. And maybe such schools are run differently in India. But I think the vast majority in the UK are pretty awful.

  23. Everyone is going to hate me. Not boarding school, but I think Independent schools have the edge. OH is the product of a boarding school and as far as I am concerned his education was far superior to mine. My school only cared if you turned up so you got a mark in the register.

    Don't forget that children go to boarding schools for all different reasons and over the years I have heard many stories from families who are in the Forces, rather than move them around the constant of the school was always there.

    If we ever have children I will work so they can go to an Independent, but they will come home at the end of the day.

    There isn't a day that goes by that I don't marvel at the level of education that others had compared to my class at school. The mind boggles.

    I am a closet Tiger Mum waiting to jump out!

  24. Sol: I think independent schools are very variable in quality. The teachers at my prep school were excellent and I really enjoyed being there, but my boarding school was very third-rate and my exam results mediocre.

    Children who board because their parents are in the forces do often say they appreciated the stability and not being shunted from one school to another.

    It sounds like you went to a state school with particularly low standards and left feeling very poorly educated. Unfortunately there are still many state schools that let their pupils down badly. If such schools were properly run, we wouldn't need independent schools at all.