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.”