Across the UK a debate about the psychological damages of boarding school education is in full swing. Some therapists even call for an outright ban of early boarding.
by Jakob Horstmann.
Translation of Die kranken Eliten. Britische Elite-Schulen und das Internats-Syndrom,
in Der Spiegel, 20.06.2014
David Cameron is a sick man. The British Prime Minister, educated at Eton and Oxford, suffers from ‘boarding school syndrome’ (BSS). Growing up in elite boarding schools from the age of seven left him socially incompetent – especially towards women –, emotionally immature and with a very shaky sense of morals.
This, at any rate, is the conviction of a growing number of psychotherapists and educational professionals who identified BSS as the root cause of a wide variety of mental health issues in boarding school alumni. ‘Most only enter therapy when something in their life goes terribly wrong’, says psychotherapist Nick Duffell, who pioneered BSS treatment. More often than not ex-boarders who seek his help complain about failed marriages and/or alienated children.
So-called boarding school survivors function well in everyday life, often excelling in their careers, but are incapable of building and maintaining intimate relationships, Duffell explains. Their elite upbringing gave them a sense of entitlement, which makes them react to conflict with cold arrogance. They only really feel at ease amongst their equals – men from privileged backgrounds.
‘I was defeated’
In the UK the BSS movement has sparked a broad and lively debate: Are the expensive and prestigious elite schools, so rich in history and cultural significance, really a merciless conveyor belt for highly qualified emotional zombies? Either way, elite boarding schools are as popular as never before. At the moment 68,000 pupils are full boarders, a one percent increase compared to last year, even though average annual fees have reached a record high of £28,000.
Boarding school critics can count on significant celebrity support. Author John le Carré (Sherborne School), whose famous spy novels reliably feature the figure of the emotionally distant apparatchik, put it most drastically: ‘The British are known to be mad. But in the maiming of their privileged young, they are criminally insane.’ In a Guardian op-ed, leading journalist George Monbiot listed no fewer than eight articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child infringed by boarding.
The root cause of the BSS is the ‘strategic survival personality’ that young boarders quickly adopt as shelter against their loveless environment. ‘Many children start full-time boarding at seven or eight. Especially the separation from the mother is often experienced as extremely traumatic’, says psychotherapist Joy Schaverien, who was the first to identify the syndrome in the Journal of Analytical Psychology in 2004
‘I cried and cried and cried when I first went’, remembers 30-year old Sam Barber, who attended Hawtreys and Eton, of his first weeks in the new environment. ‘At some point I stopped crying and I stopped feeling. I was defeated.’
Troubled sexual development
According to Oxford-educated Duffell, the stiff hierarchies among the children and the often cold treatment on part of teachers and staff only serve to increase the pupils’ tendency to withdraw. ‘These places are almost military. After all they were designed to produce administrators for the empire’, explains Duffell. The older pupils are responsible that the countless arbitrary rules that structure everyday life in the houses are being upheld.
Another factor is the almost inevitably disturbed sexual development of the children. Most elite boarding schools are still open to boys only, which makes normal socialisation with the other sex nearly impossible. ‘Women are objectified and idealized”, says Simon Partridge, who grew up in Boarzell and Eastbourne College, ‘you only really respect the male.’
In the wake of more and more frequent and shocking accounts of sexual abuse at elite schools, the BSS movement has received increased attention. Last January 20 boarding schools faced a class-action lawsuit regarding alleged sexual abuse practices of teaching staff, detailing several dozen cases spanning across four decades. In the beginning of May a long article in the Observer, in which author and journalist Alex Renton writes openly about abuse he suffered at Ashdown house (alma mater also to actor Damien Lewis and London’s mayor Boris Johnson), caused considerable waves.
The public outrage climaxed in a campaign aiming to ban boarding for children under the age of 13 entirely. ‘We call for an end to early boarding along with the privations that are demonstrably detrimental to children’s wellbeing’, reads the open letter signed by dozens of activists and psychotherapists.
The bad old days?
Those in favour of the still highly popular practice of boarding dismiss the campaign. For them the elite boarding schools represent the best academic traditions of Britain, and they claim that the more contentious aspects of boarding are a thing of the past anyway. ‘Nowadays children are part of the decision-making to go to a boarding school, and schools will make sure the child’s wishes are being taken into account before they admit them’, says Ray McGovern, chairman of the Boarding Schools Association in a Guardian article. Besides, thanks to ubiquitous mobile phones and weekend home visits communication between children and parents was much improved.
But Duffell doubts that such advances have a big impact. ‘The clear path between major public schools, Oxbridge, and office has been established now for well over 150 years.’ As long as this path remains intact, he believes there is little incentive for real change.