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Boarding School Survivors

(7 Posts)
Xenia Thu 23-Jun-11 13:12:51

Sensible article in today's Times

meditrina Thu 23-Jun-11 13:15:05

It doesn't open. Behind pay wall?

WowOoo Thu 23-Jun-11 13:17:32

Doesn't open.
Dh was sent off at a very tender age to board full time and it didn't seem to do him any harm. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Will read article later if it's in paper version.

VeraGood Thu 23-Jun-11 13:18:53

I agree ( and a friend's therapist does) that boarding school people of our age tend to be secretive and detached. You have to be living in a dorm of 25 people.

AT b/s at 11 i saw kids attempt suicide, jump out of windows and run away.Tto think my parents were paying for this was abhorent.
I felt i never fitted in at home and just wanted to be normal. i would "reverse charge" call home in tears regularly.

The thing is that there is a kind of Stockholm Syndrom that kicks in, so effective are the schools at brainwashing managing their own PR that you end up believing its "good for you".
The nearer my kids get to the age i was (10) when i was sent away the more angry i get about it.

VeraGood Thu 23-Jun-11 13:20:23

and at said school were ( looking back) a lot of VERY damaged kids - fobbed off by their parents.

Xenia Thu 23-Jun-11 16:52:35

"The emotional fallout from being sent away as a child can last a lifetime. We talk to those still living the trauma

The first time William admitted to himself that something was wrong came shortly after two policemen knocked on his door at 7 o’clock one morning in 1999 and asked him if he recognised the name Mr Pilgrim. When he said that he did — Pilgrim had been a teacher at the prep school where William, now 37, had boarded for five years from the age of 8 — the policemen asked him to make a statement. By the time they were finished, William was a nervous wreck. He remembers walking down Wimbledon High Street feeling paranoid — it was as if everyone was staring at him. Meanwhile, something “really black was rising up inside me”.

Over the coming days William, who now believes that his emotional and spiritual side “had been destroyed at school” and that he had spent his life “stuffing all my emotions down”, began to feel very low indeed. Bad memories surfaced: of canings, of inappropriate sexual contact or looks from teachers, of his own feelings of vulnerability, of terror and of loneliness. He had a flashback of Pilgrim playing Billy Bunter in the school play and realised how odd that was. The thoughts became more intrusive and darker. Soon after, he had a nervous breakdown.

Still in London — in the City — another man, Anthony, was reaping the benefits of his own privileged education. He too had been “sent away” to prep school, aged 7, and had gone on to Harrow as a scholar. “For years,” he says, “I would say what a wonderful thing it was to have gone to Harrow, what a nice rounded education I got.”

Most people, his wife would often remind him, would give their eye-teeth to have a job as prestigious and as lucrative as his. And yet from his twenties to his forties he felt a deep unease that became worse with time. When such thoughts became too much, he would numb his feelings with a technique he had learnt at prep school: “I would hold my breath until I couldn’t feel any more.” Lately, the self-suffocation technique had stopped working. The denial too, though “I tried more and more not to see what was happening to my life, or me”.

Finally, in his late forties, he went to see a therapist. “It was then that I began to realise that I had been alienated from myself for most of my life. I didn’t dare to be me.” He surprised himself also when it dawned on him that he hated the job to which he had dedicated the past 30 years of his life; that he had slipped into it only because it had been expected of him and that “I was married to a woman who liked being the wife of a managing director”. Divorce followed.

“Boarding school reshaped me into something that wasn’t me,” he says. “I realised that the constant bantering and bullying had created a numbness to my surroundings. One part of me was sensitive to the world, but there was another side that had been killed off. I was cold, disengaged and detached.”

Anthony is now 67 and in a long-term relationship with a French woman: “I still feel shocked at the indifference people have to the lives that have been ruined. I think boarding schools are a bad thing for individuals and our country. What is laughable is that we have a Government that thinks you can measure people’s happiness. Only if you went to a public school would you think that is possible.”

William and Anthony are not lone voices. Recently the psychotherapist Joy Schaverien published a paper — Boarding School: The Trauma of the Privileged Child — in which she identified Boarding School Syndrome. She argues that many former boarders suffer from intimacy problems and hidden trauma. Like a previous paper on the subject (there are very few), Schaverien’s is not — and this is one of its huge weaknesses — based on solid empirical data, nor on systematic research. Rather her theories are informed by the work she has undertaken with clients, many of whom — male and female — attended boarding school from a very young age.

Hilary Moriarty, the head of the Boarding Schools’ Association, told me that she felt that Schaverien’s research “is based on historical models that are unrecognisable today. There has been a revolution in boarding, and talking to people who went to boarding school 20 or 30 years ago is not the same as talking to boys who go now.”

According to the Independent Schools Council (ICS) census, 191 seven-year-olds now board in Britain, up from 163 last year. It compares with 485 seven-year-olds boarding in 1994, of which 104 were weekly boarders. According to the ISC, in 1982 there were 112,194 children boarding in the UK. Now it is 68,102. The figures declined in the 1990s because, it was thought, of recession. The recent economic downturn has not affected figures and they have held steady since 2004.

Is boarding a good thing, I ask Moriarty? “Modern parents make modern choices. There are Ofsted reports, there are counsellors in schools, there is great care given to the happiness of the child, many of whom are weekly boarders.”

She says that the attraction of boarding school relates to the high cost of childcare, the lack of crèches and that “our state school system appears not to be good enough in many areas”. When I ask her whether she would have sent her own children to boarding school, she replies: “I would not have sent a child of 7 to boarding school but it was not something that crossed my path.”

Is 7 too young? Schaverien thinks so: “If mothers paid attention to their feelings they probably wouldn’t send their children to prep school. But they disregard their feelings in the name of tradition, or because they are being pressured, or maybe because they want to farm the child out. Then there are other parents who, if they thought about what they were doing, would have to rethink their whole lives. They don’t understand its emotional impact. There’s a feeling that prep schools train children to be military fodder, to be leaders. But I don’t think cutting off their feelings by sending them to board at 7 is a great way to do that.”

Schaverien contends also that many former boarders feel unable to talk about their experiences or even see them in a negative light because, implicitly, they haven’t been given permission, as expensive prep schools are regarded as so much of a privilege.

“Parents bankrupt themselves to send their children to school when they are just babies really,” Schaverien says. “This is a terrible burden for the child. But it is like sending a child into care. Nowadays there are duvets on the beds and they are allowed teddy bears but it doesn’t make up for the fact that children leave their mothers, their primary attachment figures, when they are still essentially babies.”

Boarding school, Schaverien believes, “is a particularly British form of child abuse and social control”.

“Attachment theory”, a core tenet of contemporary psychology, was formulated by the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who, in the Second World War, observed the effects on children who had lost parents or been evacuated. During the 1980s, his theories were extrapolated and applied to adults — separation anxiety and grief in childhood, it is now commonly held, can create different “attachment styles” in adult romantic relationships:

secure- avoidant, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant.

Boarding school “survivors”, as they have been collectively termed by the psychotherapist Nick Duffell, are said to most frequently exhibit avoidant styles, viewing themselves as self-sufficient, invulnerable to attachment feelings and not needing close relationships. Often they suppress their feelings, cope with rejection by distancing themselves from partners or feel uncomfortable with emotional or physical closeness.

Schaverien says that such adults are “arrested emotionally at the age they were sent away” with particular reference to their sexuality. “Boarding school is a misogynistic environment — boys find it very difficult to relate to women, which has a huge impact on their relationships,” she says. “This is a separate issue about the debates around sadism and sex abuse that go on in schools. The main thing is separation.”

Within days of publishing her paper Schaverien was receiving hundreds of letters and e-mails from people who told her that they had finally come to understand their difficulties relating to other people, or why they had deliberately isolated themselves, sometimes in their relationships.

Female former boarders wrote to her about difficulties with intimacy, but the letters that surprised her were from wives and girlfriends of men who had spent their early years in boarding school, unable as adults to, according to the wives, “let me in” or “include me in his life”. Many of these women reported feeling lonely in their relationships, or increasingly mad. Their partners would deny that their behaviour was aberrant. For such women, Schaverien says: “It’s a mystery what’s going on in their partners’ heads. These men outwardly have a huge respect for women and that is terribly seductive, but often when, say, the couple have children she finds that he can’t be involved with the family.”

I ask her what such men have told her during therapy about their views on women: “They think of them as alien creatures, really. When they find someone who loves them, they may initially create great emotional dependency and then cut off from them and sort of punish them.”

Schaverien’s theories may sound new but they form part of a slowly growing anti-boarding school movement that began more than a decade ago. Two films were screened — the 1994 documentary The Making of Them, and later Chosen, in which victims of sexually predatory teachers at Caldicott Prep School, Buckinghamshire, talked about their harrowing experiences. Caldicott is still a feeder school to Eton and Harrow and no mention of the abuse scandal is to be found on its website. Instead, we see bright pictures of enthusiastic children and great emphasis placed on pastoral care and the quality of education.

Look at the website of any boarding prep school and you will find a lot of information about how children are more likely to gain admission into the top schools. An analysis of this year’s edition of Who’s Who reveals that 2,300 entrants attended five leading public schools — Eton, Charterhouse, Harrow, Rugby School and Marlborough. More Old Etonians entered Who’s Who in 2011 than any year since 1997.

Elibean Thu 23-Jun-11 17:12:05

As an ex-therapist, am not surprised by article. Have heard lots of very sad stories, by adults who were too numb to realize how badly treated they felt when they were kids, but realized a lot later.
Many had perfectly well meaning parents, btw - and my uncle (now 80) is quite aware that it was 'just what everyone did', and had a reasonably happy time at boarding school, but even he (not given to talking about his feelings) will say his ability to have close relationships was utterly sabotaged by being away from his family at the age of 7.
OTOH, I have neices on dh's side who did some weekly boarding as teens...admittedly, they did both end up with eating disorders (now sorted) but I think that was more to do with other factors than it was than with the actual boarding. They chose the boarding themselves, were of an age when some separation from parents is more usual, and weren't far from home.
I have no idea what boarding is like these days, as opposed to 20 years ago, but still find it an odd idea, personally - can't imagine not having daily interraction with my kids confused

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