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27 September 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 11:16am

In defence of boarding school

Is boarding school really a form of abuse, as some have claimed? Fred Wienand argues that our view of schooling away from home is stuck in the 19th century.

By Fred Wienand

Boarding schools have been getting a bad rap recently. Since the publication of Joy Schaverien’s essay “Boarding School Syndrome: Broken Attachments, A Hidden Trauma” in The British Journal of Psychotherapy, the internet has been awash with articles describing the trauma Schaverien believes is part and parcel of being schooled away from home. The latest addition to this ever-expanding canon is Katie Engelhart’s re-examination of the supposed mental illness that is ‘BSS’ (Boarding School Syndrome) and the legitimacy of boarding schools detractors, published in VICE magazine earlier this week.

Such critical hostility towards the boarding school system is understandable. The revelation of sexual abuse, perpetrated by teachers and priests at Fort Augustus Abbey School in Scotland is the most recent example. These disturbing late revelations have led to a concerned paranoia as to the effects of abuse within a ‘total institution’. There are other good reasons for concern too. Bullying is extremely common. What’s more, recent psychological research is being used to argue that children sent to boarding school are deprived of the love and nourishment required for healthy psychological development.

Both Joy Schaverien and Jane Barclay (a therapeutic counsellor and ex-boarder working for the charity ‘Boarding Concern’), have argued that boarding school students are forced suppress the emotional trauma produced by being abandoned in an unfamiliar place populated entirely by strangers. They form a veneer of assured confidence and create habitual strategies to survive the dog-eat-dog boarding environment. These strategies then become maladaptive in adult life, leaving ex-boarders unable to form intimate relationships, incapable of properly expressing emotion and acutely susceptible to other coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse and alcoholism.

Barclay writes: “Ex-boarders have just as much difficulty rejoining the wider world as combat veterans and released prisoners and prisoners-of-war…Life is matter of survival, of ‘getting by’…”. Boarding itself, in Barclay’s judgement, is a form of emotional torture and abuse in itself.

The evidence used in these studies is almost exclusively anecdotal. Many of the people questioned were individuals for whom the boarding system failed, where in reality, former boarders tend to have vastly differing accounts of their boarding school life.

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What is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the discussion is the assumption that all boarding schools have remained suspended in time, frozen at some point in the mid-19th century. The threat of corporal punishment is no longer present. The majority of Britain’s boarding schools are now mixed. “Boarding inspections take place every three years,” according to the BSA website, and government agencies, such as Ofsted, now have a plethora of criteria by which to judge boarding schools, including pastoral care.

Of course, these solutions do not account for the possibility that boarding itself may be a psychologically harmful experience. I would never dispute that many have suffered at school – but that is true no matter what type of school you attend. What is unfair about the attacks on boarding school, is that they fail to acknowledge the ways in which those schools have improved. There are many people who have benefitted significantly from the independence, intimate friendships and strong sense of community that the boarding life can offer. Boarding is no longer a question of dispassionate, uninterested parents banishing their noisy children to the countryside for correctional education. As Julie Lodrick said on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour: “children are now very much part of choosing their school along with their parents.” Boarding is now expected to be a considered parental decision that involves the child’s preferences. Of course, these preferences diminish with the decreasing age of the child, but a primary boarding school cannot be held accountable for the questionable decisions of parents, who may, through indolence, simply have sent their child to a boarding school because it happens to be convenient. The BSA website offers the best summative statement of this concept: “Modern boarding really is a partnership between school and parents…”.  

What this issue really boils down to is the fact that any institutional system is only as good as the people that manage and maintain it. With parents, house-parents, teachers and children all operating on the same caring, sensitive wavelength, boarding has become a totally different form of education from that of even the mid-20th century. Education, and therefore boarding, is a very subjective process. Some will suit the boarding life far better than others. However, accepting this principle, it is now expected that boarding schools offer the most attentive, caring environment they can, while allowing independence to flourish. It is not fair to judge modern schools according to the painful recollections of those who were failed by a set of institutions that have effectively disappeared from the educational spectrum.