Shed a Tear for Britain's Messed Up Boarding School Kids

By Katie Engelhart


Illustrations by Cei Willis

Nick Duffell, a London-based psychotherapist, says he can usually spot an ex-boarding school student on first glance. The giveaway won’t be the “good breeding” and blue-blooded lilt to the voice. It will be something more equivocal: “A kind of wounded quality.” One might even call it a syndrome: “Boarding School Syndrome.”

Today, Duffell and a small coterie of British therapists want to see “Boarding School Syndrome” (BSS) recognised as a legit medical condition. The idea is simple: that boarding school – long a bastion of Englishness, now a nugget of colonial nostalgia – is, today, an avenue to lasting psychological trauma. It’s also an idea that's catching on. Today, ex-boarders flock to therapists in droves; attending weekend healing workshops and congregating in online support groups.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Boarding School Association (BSA) is steeling itself: stressing that the Dickensian reformatories of yore have given way to far more nurturing schools – and that the science behind BSS remains pretty sketchy.

Boarding School Syndrome “is a British problem”, Duffell sighs. And it has history: its roots stretch back to long-ago Imperial days, when boarding schools were meant to build character and shape sons of Empire. Is it time for a pedagogical reckoning?

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Last Spring, Dr Joy Schaverien gave a lecture on BSS to London’s Society of Analytical Psychology. Her talk described the developmental trauma that young borders purportedly endure – and the way this trauma manifests as adult dysfunction.

For Schaverien, it was the sum of a two-year media blitz, which began in 2011 when she coined the term “Boarding School Syndrome” in The British Journal of Psychotherapy. Then, Schaverien defined BSS as a “cluster of learned behaviours and discontents that… revolve around problems with intimacy”.

The British press pounced. “The British boarding school remains a bastion of cruelty,” the Guardian cried, the article's writer George Monbiot musing elsewhere about how “Britain’s most overt form of child abuse is mysteriously ignored". “Does ‘brusque’ and ‘rude’ David Cameron suffer from Boarding School Syndrome?” the Telegraph wondered aloud. One Daily Mail column was titled: “How boarding school was great preparation for life… nothing will ever be so ghastly.”

This was bad news for boarding schools. For the last few decades, boarding school enrolment has been falling fast: from about 120,000 in 1981, to 66,776 in 2013 (37,171 boys compared to 29,605 girls). Today – at a time when the average boarding school costs over £25,000 per year, and many students board just an hour or so from home (really) – the industry is fighting to prove its relevance.

But long before there was BSS the catchphrase, there was BSS the trauma. Nick Duffell has been treating BSS for decades. “In 1989, I was working in men’s groups. This was the time of the so-called Men’s Movement, which was really an offshoot of feminism. And I realised that there was a specific category of men for which our work didn’t quite fit. They all had something in common…” They had been to boarding school. In 1990, Duffell founded Boarding School Survivors, which he followed with a book, The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System.

Duffell, 64, was intimately acquainted with his subject. He boarded as a child. After undergrad at Oxford, where he studied Sanskrit and Indian philosophy, he even taught at a girls boarding school in India. “I was an absolutely hopeless teacher, crikey! But it was India; they didn’t have the same harsh regime that British schools had. They’re more used to loving their children than the Brits.”

Boarding Concern is a support group for ex-boarders. It was started in 2001 by James Foucar, who was emotionally scarred at St Aubyns (which he attended from age eight) and Millfield (which he left, exasperated, at 16). I met Foucar (who boasts, on his personal website, of “an IQ that puts him above 99.6 percent of the population”) in a glass-windowed conference room at the large insurance firm where he worked – with an expansive view of the City and London’s heady urban shuffle.

For his part, Foucar did not initially experience boarding school as traumatic. His first stop was “a very traditional, authoritarian, prudish prep school”, where “I spent a lot of time being caned… because I was naughty”. Later, he attended Millfield: “It was a very progressive school… When I arrived, the sixth form girls were wearing hot pants!” There, he saw darker days. Foucar claims that he experienced “grooming” by a male teacher – though it never extended to sexual assault. “I had a nervous breakdown at age 12 over the way that this teacher was behaving towards me… I was aware that things were happening to other boys.”

Twelve years after its founding, Boarding Concern has “a good group of core supporters”, an annual conference and a newsletter – and a website featuring an image of a melancholy young boy, glowering at the camera through a chain-linked fence. It also has an advocacy wing, which argues against so-called “early boarding” of very young children. Activists argue that boarding school “offends no fewer than 11 articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child”.

To illustrate how very dangerous early boarding is, ex-boarders often refer to the popular 1994 documentary The Making of Them – whose dramatic climax is a young father chuckling to himself, shortly after sending off his eight-year-old: “A friend of ours used to have to be heavily sedated in order to go to school. Perfectly normal chap now!”

So-called Boarding School Syndrome is a cluster of behaviours and opinions that typify the adult ex-boarder. Take it away, Schaverien:

Even when not mistreated, being left in the care of strangers is traumatic… A shell is formed to protect the vulnerable self from emotion that cannot be processed. Whilst appearing to conform to the system, a form of unconscious splitting is acquired as a means of keeping the true self hidden… The child then makes no emotional demands but also no longer recognises the need for intimacy. The self begins to become inaccessible; ‘Boarding School Syndrome’ develops.

The syndrome starts to fester on Day 1; there is loneliness, dejection. But boarders learn to be stoic: they pull themselves up by their bootstraps and take it all on the chin.

More potent BSS symptoms appear decades later, when strategies once adopted to survive boarding school become maladaptive. BSS sufferers have “problems with relationships, problems with intimacy, depression”, Schaverien explains. “The men especially are often very closed-off emotionally… They get on with the job, and so on. But they never talk about their feelings.”

Forgive me for remarking that this sounds rather… British?

“It is associated in Britain with a kind of national characteristic… the bumbling Hugh Grant character,” Nick Duffell concedes. “What Hugh Grant portrays in an immature boyishness. That’s our endearing national character. We’re rather fond of that sort of thing. We don’t think of it as a pathology.”

There’s much to criticise in this diagnosis. BSS is not a recognised medical ailment – the kind, say, that would be codified in diagnostic manuals. The academic work on BSS is largely qualitative and anecdotal – and a lot of it is conducted by ex-boarders. “We can’t really do a double-blind [test] with this,” Schaverien insists. “You can’t have the same person have two experiences: be traumatised by going away at six and not be traumatised by going away at six.” True. But you can do quantitative studies of students, boarders and non-boarders, over time – with an eye for variations in behaviour and measures of sanity.

Still, psychotherapists across the UK are advertising their expertise in BSS treatment. Nick Duffell’s weekend therapy workshops are a model: “In the first session, we are allowing people to tell stories that perhaps they’ve never told about what it was like… The second week, we devote to: How did you survive?” One activity involves role-playing; ex-boarders are asked to "play" their parents – to discover what it might have been like to send a young child away. 

Perhaps they felt conflicted? Emotionally torn asunder? Or perhaps they were just part of what Schaverien calls “the privileged elite, who of course send their children to boarding school because it’s what you do, dahling".

The thing is, most of Britain is run by (mostly) men who hail from the "it’s what you do" clan: men who were sent away before the boarding school reforms of the last few decades. BSS, its sufferers insist, is thus a political malady, as much as a mental one.

Left-minded British political hacks like nothing more than to observe how many current Cabinet members went to boarding school: and particularly, Eton. David Cameron is an Old Etonian. And according to the Telegraph, he “has more boys from his school around him than any PM since Harold MacMillan”. His Chief of Staff, Chip Whip, Cabinet Office Minister, Head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, Minister of State for the Foreign Office and Chief Economic Adviser are all Old Etonians. (As are, for the record, Princes William and Harry, the Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury.) But a great swathe of boarding schools is represented at the highest echelons.

Indeed, Cameron lived the quintessential boarding school experience, as described by older “survivors”. A few years ago, he admitted that at prep school, he was beaten several times with the hard end of a clothes brush – once, after stealing from the headmaster’s wife.

Some speculate that old boarding school habits die hard. Cameron's governing style has been compared to that of a cocksure school prefect. His alleged tactlessness and viciousness with junior MPs has reportedly been dubbed “The Flashman Tendency”, a reference to the bully character in Tom Brown’s popular School Days novel (set at boarding school). When MP Sarah Wollaston received a talking-down by the PM’s office, the Daily Mail explained, “she was Flashmaned”.

“It is a system,” Nick Duffel bemoans. The psychotherapist insists that BSS research has been held back – that the diagnosis has escaped the interest of the British public – because boarding school “is built into society”. Thus, the diagnosis “has political implications. It’s rather unusual that a psychological syndrome should have political implication…. [But] the current leaders, they don’t have empathy. It’s very bizarre!” In Therapy Today, Duffell observes that:

The majority [of British leaders] have boarded at our famous public schools and embody a recognisable veneer of confidence, linked with the ability to suggest sincerity while disregarding feelings and bullying others at work.

Is this Conservative dirtbaggery, or the manifestation of early childhood trauma? BSS champions are hoping to make the point stick: that for political reasons, BSS is deserving of broad national attention.

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In 1693, philosopher John Locke opined that boarding schools made pupils “bolder and better able to bustle and shift among boys”. But he sensed that when you send little boys away, all kinds of corruption await them. Parents who do so, he rued, “think it worthwhile to hazard [their] son’s innocence and virtue for a little Greek and Latin”.

By then, British boarding schools were national institutions. In the 14th and 15th centuries, boarding schools were monastic training grounds, run by clergymen. They were reborn as scholarly hubs at the height of Empire, when they housed the tots of colonial administrators sent abroad. Only under Queen Victoria did middle classes begin to see boarding schools as places where a young man might imbibe character and social standing.

The interwar period brought an industry lull. Critics lambasted boarding schools for their war-like preoccupation with sport and physical prowess (the “tyranny of games”). After WWII, more schools closed. Those that survived were not known for their creature comforts. Just asked Prince Charles: the first direct heir to the throne to be schooled away from home. In the 60s, Charles studied at Gordonstoun School, in Scotland. There, he was roused from bed at the crack of dawn for a brisk run and a cold shower. He later described his education as a “prison sentence”.

After it all, the cultural legacy of the boarding school is mixed. There are hordes of Enid Blyton and Enid Blyton-esque volumes: books in which rosy-cheeked boarders pass their days in endless fits of practical jokery. But there is also Charles Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall for unwanted children. Today, there is Harry Potter, whose merry days at Hogwarts have reportedly inspired a new rush of boarding school enthusiasts. “Children of this generation,” remarks Hilary Moriarty, national director of the UK’s Boarding Schools’ Association, "have seen people like Harry Potter going to a boarding school and having a great time! Mind you, Hogwarts would not pass the National Minimum Standards, never mind talking pictures and so on…”

Critics of the Boarding School Syndrome hypothesis stress that Britain’s boarding schools have changed for the better. They’re right.

A few weeks ago, I met Sam Roots, 26, for lunch in London’s Spitalfields Market. Over a fish finger sandwich, Roots – a slight, quick-witted renewable energy consultant – recalled his boyhood days at Winchester, which claims to be longest continuously operating boarding school in the world. (Founded: 1382. Slogan: Manners makyth man.)

I listed the symptoms of BSS aloud, trying to spot a flinch or an emotion-laden sigh. Bullying? “Sometimes after lights out, there would be a dorm raid with pillow fighting…” Homophobia? Nope. A shattered home? “No, I would hazard to say that I’m closer with my family for having gone to boarding school – because it meant that I rebelled against the school, instead of against them.”

Roots’ memories are mostly fond. He passed many an afternoon studying music – eventually becoming an accomplished singer and pianist. During free time, he often reserved spots along the nearby river, where he would go to fish in calm solitude. And he usually went home on Sundays. During schooldays, Roots was challenged by good teachers, many of whom had PhDs and were passionate scholars. “There was a maths teacher who was really into illuminated manuscripts,” he recalls. “He ran an illuminated manuscript club. And he inspired some people to study Medieval English.

Today, even students at less swank academies will have dozens of rules and regulations and independent inspectors safeguarding their good times. In recent decades, the Boarding School Association tightened its reigns – as evidenced by its latest “Minimum Standards,” which governs everything from security (CCTV cameras may not “intrude unreasonably on children’s privacy”) to decorations (students may have “suitable posters”) to mental health services. BSA also hosts professional workshops, on subjects like: “Understanding & supporting children who self-harm” and “Developing Resilience in Pupils.” There is much talk of “pastoral care”.

There are broader changes. Early boarding is on the steep decline. As of last year, there were only 123 seven-year-old boarders in Britain. In her book Harry Potter and History, Nancy Reagin, a history professor at Pace University in New York, argues that early boarding has become sufficiently “unfashionable” that it led some publishers to turn down JK Rowling’s first draft of Harry Potter. Boarding schools have also become adjustable. More students are “weekly boarders”, who spend weekends at home, or “flexi-boarders”, who board on a day-by-day basis.

And the boarding experience is oh-so-slowly being extended to the less-than-moneyed. There are currently 35 state-funded boarding schools – and the Department of Education hopes to open more. Earlier this year, Eton College announced that it would open its own state-funded boarding school in Berkshire.

Despite all this, BSA’s Hilary Moriarty anticipates a slide backwards: “I half expect that there will be a resurgence in junior boarding in six or seven years time.” Today’s babes, Moriarty argues, are ferried from daycare to school to babysitter to bed – passing only scant minutes with busy, career-driven parents. A parent might just say: “How about a boarding school at seven? I’ll make her a weekly boarder and I’ll actually see as much of her as I do now.”

On that note: perhaps, as boarding schools become more pleasant, attention will shift to parents, potentially traumatised by the act of potentially traumatising their children? Anybody for an Empty Nest Syndrome?

Follow Katie on Twitter: @katieengelhart

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