Brits warned to beware of 'boarding school syndrome' -

Brits warned to beware of ‘boarding school syndrome’

Critics contend that U.K.’s ‘bastion of cruelty’ is causing profound developmental damage

Boarding school syndrome

Eddie Keogh/Reuters

The boarding school has long stood as a symbol of Englishness. Since the 15th century, the likes of Eton College (Prince William’s and Prime Minister David Cameron’s alma mater) have been training grounds for stiff-lipped elites. Until recently, more spartan reformatories—à la Dickens’ fictional Dotheboys Hall for unwanted children in Nicholas Nickleby—have housed the nation’s less-than-moneyed. The austere boarding schools of yore have been upgraded, and almost 70,000 British children—among them, the most privileged tots in the land—continue to attend.

Might they be at risk of severe psychological trauma? Enter a new diagnosis: “boarding school syndrome.”

Last month, at the Society of Analytical Psychology in London, Dr. Joy Schaverien gave a lecture on boarding school syndrome. She coined the term in a 2011 paper in The British Journal of Psychiatry, arguing that boarding schools “can cause profound developmental damage.” Schaverien says that after years of counselling “ex-boarders,” she noticed “a cluster of learned behaviours and discontents.” Among the symptoms: an inability to express or interpret emotion, generalized depression and problems with intimacy. “They get on with the job and so on,” says Schaverien, “but they never talk about their feelings.”

The proposed syndrome (it is not a recognized medical condition) has fed many a headline. “The British boarding school remains a bastion of cruelty,” reported the Guardian. “Does ‘brusque’ and ‘rude’ David Cameron suffer from boarding school syndrome?” the Telegraph enquired.

None of this will be news to the hordes of ex-boarders who are gathering online in solidarity. Groups such as Boarding Survivors UK and Boarding Concern offer therapeutic workshops for “survivors”; they also campaign against “early boarding” for children aged 7-13.

There are those for whom the structure of boarding school is a saving grace, but critics contend the tradition has gone unchallenged for too long. In the words of British writer George Monbiot, “early boarding . . . is as British as warm beer, green suburbs and pointless foreign wars. Despite, or because of that, we won’t talk about it.”


Brits warned to beware of ‘boarding school syndrome’

  1. It is just terrifying. I went to Shrewsbury, England. A very lonely and loveless experience at an all boys school boarding from 12. Now on anxiety pills permanently. The rugby is also a killer having been made to prop. Permanent disc wear causing real chronic pain although I did play at university voluntarily.

    • Am I the exception or perhaps my enjoyment of my boarding school days was because I was better prepared for them. There was never any question that I would be sent off to boarding school at 7 as had my father and mother and two my four grandparents. I am sure that this knowledge was shared with me from a very young age so when the time came to be waved off from Victoria Station in my little red and black cap and school uniform it seemed quite normal to me.
      That was the way it was in 1948.

  2. The whole private education system in Britain siphons off educational resources and directs them to the families of the rich, powerful and influential and away from many who may well be the more capable. The “old boy” networks they engender also ensures that those who are in charge may well be there because of their connections rather than their ability while they are so emotionally crippled by their boarding school experiences that they cannot benefit from the normal rewards of a successful family life and have to spend their adulthood in pursuit of knighthoods. If the damage to society were not so pervasive it would be funny.

  3. I would offer a girl’s experience since so there is so much emphasis on boys in this context. Granted, it was in the fifties but the damage was permanent. Sadistic ‘wardmistresses’ who used humiliation and denigration as a way of controlling, punishments that demeaned the child, continual criticism about appearance, behaviour, no privacy, 24 hour wearing of uninform – mostly handed down serge and calico, no access to the outside world( no radio(except hymns on Sundays), newspapers, censored letters both in and out, no phone contact withparents, visits three time term at most but many of us only had one visit if that as our parents were mostly lower income, continual demands that we should be grateful for everything, sleeping in dorms of 18 till the age of 18, and the constant knowledge that no one we were living with loved us or was there to give affection or reassurance when problems came up. As for adolescence and its needs, they were ignored or dismissed as ‘troublesome glands’ (a quote from the headmistresses book on her days at the school) NO social life with the other sex. Only one man on the whole school campus, and when we went home we had no friends because we had lost all contacts being away so much, and with no phones or letter communication.. There were sports but if one had any aptitude one’s participation was contingent on behaving according to formulae in all other contexts, and the slightest divergence meant no sport. I didn’t like sport much except that occasionally a team would go to another school for a match and that offered a way out for a few hours. We always had to go for a long walk most days, in croc form, even when we were as old as 16, in full, awful uniform. In order to get’privileges’ like wearing a watch or using an ink pen after 16 we had to earn a black apron which we had to make ourselves and we could only wear it if our wardmistress approved of us as a good girl according to her rules.
    We never wore our own clothes. We had our hair cut short. We never wore makeup, and some girls were 18 before leaving. We had very little idea about how the world works or how to relate to men unless we had brothers with friends whom we might see in the holidays.
    Academically there was little guidance as to how to fit abilities to courses.Assessment of aptitude depended on how one performed in keeping rules, behaving according to some mistress’ whim.And one tended to like courses where the teacher showed some glimmer of interest or kindness towards one.Consequently I chose something quite unsuitable because the teacher was the only one I thought would not be totally dismissive of my persona. Parents were not consulted. I ended up with 3 A levels, but with no focus for a particular career and ended up going to a college quite unsuited to me for three years. Later I went back to university and did a grad degree in a subject that fitted my inclinations and abilities.
    We had no music except ecclesiastical in the chapel, and the choir. We had prayers and chapel three time a day and three services on Sundays.
    We never learned attachment- were always contemplating the next separation with anyone we were trying to love at home – home connections weakened as we rarely saw parents.We were encouraged to inform on each other about any offences – and most things seemed to be offensive. We had no privacy. It was like a prison.And this school was regarded as a great public school, 400 years old. Now it has amalgamated with the boys’ school and things are better I think. There is much more freedom, they actually seem to have home contact, separate rooms,beer nights, trips abroad, and social events as well as good academic support with mixed gender teachers.I don’t know about the emotional side though from an individual’ viewpoint. But there are no very young people there and there isn’t the same feeling of being isolated and imprisoned, cut off from the world.Unfortunately it seems that what is happening in the brain at adolescence is very far reaching in terms of its effect on later life. While one can deal with much of the intellectual deficits or mistakes, where emotions and sense of self are concerned this is not easy to change, or, it seems, ever eradicate. My brother tried hypnosis but it didn’t work.
    Charles Lamb, who went to the school, wrote an interesting essay on his experiences there. I’d also mention that it is in the encyclopedia of cruelty published in Australia.

    • As a recent ejection of that particular school myself, I have to say that it is waaaay better than the old girl’s school seems to have been. It’s still got the crushing sense of isolation though, most of the students there seem to have “boarding school syndrome” despite the improvements.
      In fact, when I was a new boy there, there was a stupendous amount of violence which the teachers turned a blind eye to, ridiculous punishments such as “Drills” where you had to be up and at the school office in full uniform at 8am on a Sunday (the only day where we had a day half-free of work), after which we would do some ridiculous, repetitive but gruelling work, usually out in the cold. And if your uniform wasn’t perfect, you’d be out there next week too. This was less than a decade ago.
      A surprising amount of my friends are on medication for mental problems, and I can’t help thinking that the stupidly high standards set by the school and the rigorous work schedule of 6-and-a-half days probably had something to do with it. It certainly gave us all warped views of what was “good work” with 6 As at GCSE considered a standard for entry into the 6th form.

  4. My parents sent me to Shawnigan Lake School in 1958. Then it was a toxic culture of corporal punishment with beatings, canings and lashings. The old expression that shit flows down hill held true. I suffered bullying, hazing and physical abuse from the older boys every day for two and a half years. It blighted my life turning me into an emotionally repressed, socially isolated, workaholic.