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Should seven-year-olds be sent to boarding school? The case for and against

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In this week’s TES, journalist Adi Bloom spent the first day and night of term at Cheltenham College Preparatory boarding school, observing how children as young as 7 adjusted to life away from home.

Two boarding-school experts now offer their cases for and against sending children away to school at an early age.

The case against

Joy Schaverien is the author of Boarding School Syndrome: the psychological trauma of the 'privileged' child, which is published by Routledge.

The term “boarding-school syndrome” identifies a cluster of learned behaviours and discontents that are common in adults who boarded when they were young.

Children who board in prep school experience abandonment and bereavement at a very early age. Even when surrounded by kindly adults and a caring ethos, they are captive: powerless to leave unless released by staff or parents.

The initial abandonment is traumatic for children, most of whom – until this time in their short lives – have had continuity of intimate care and love. Like Maya in Adi Bloom’s article, they have imagined boarding will be fun, and the reality only hits when the parents have left and the initial excitement turns to bewilderment. As one of the staff observes, it is not the first night that brings the full realisation of what it means to board but the next and the one after that and so on…and so the implicit trust in continuity of care and parental love is gradually eroded.

The sudden rupture in primary attachments is at first confusing and then devastating.  The word "homesickness" is inadequate to express the depth of this trauma. The term "bereavement" is more appropriate, as it is a grief reaction to the sudden loss of significant primary-attachment figures (parents, siblings, pets, toys and all that is familiar). The emotional reaction can be overwhelming. Maya’s worry about a hurting knee and an anxious discussion in the dormitory about fire-and-safety arrangements are some of the ways in which the grief is expressed. Children suddenly finding themselves alone without intimate contact and without love will be anxious.

Living in captivity, even benign captivity, is still imprisonment. The psychological parallel is that the emotional self also becomes imprisoned. Young children have no words to adequately express the feeling state and so a shell is formed to protect them from otherwise overwhelming emotions. Too young to mentalise their situation, children need loving adults to help them find words to process intense experiences. Unable to soothe themselves, they begin to develop a false self, a form of psychological armour. While appearing to conform to the regime, their vulnerability is hidden even from themselves. Many children who appear, after a few weeks, to have adapted have unconsciously made a psychological split between the home self and the boarding-school self.

This developmental split may last into adult life, affecting intimate relationships. The ex-boarder remains vigilant. It may feel unsafe to trust a loved partner or spouse because, like the parents, they too might abandon you. The source of the mistrust is often forgotten and it remains unconscious until it emerges in psychotherapy.

Adi Bloom’s observations reveal how boarders, new to the school, have already had a hugely disturbing experience before the school day begins. This contrasts with the day girl; she arrives in the classroom with her mother who sets her up with a kiss and encouraging words. “Love you,” she says before she departs. In comparison, the seven-year-old boarders are alone, already learning to live among strangers. This is the trauma that is early boarding: children are deprived of intimate care and live without love.

The case in favour

Robin Fletcher is the national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association.

With rising costs in the upkeep of facilities, competitive salaries and changes to pension schemes, it comes as no surprise that boarding schools have had to look to new ways to ensure pupil numbers remain stable. As a result, many schools are now increasingly taking a more flexible approach to boarding.

Demand for weekly, flexi- and occasional boarding has changed the landscape of modern boarding, providing parents with the choice to blend schooling, work and downtime into their family schedules. This is especially valuable at the younger end of the boarding market and this flexible approach gives parents and their children a good introduction to boarding, as clearly demonstrated in Adi Bloom’s article “From dorm to dusk”, based on her experiences at Cheltenham College Preparatory School.

In May, the Independent Schools Council released its annual census, which showed that for the first time in 11 years the number of boarding students in the UK topped 70,000. This number was complemented by the demand for boarding from our state members, who now educate more than 5,000 boarding students. This was the second growth in two years – an amazing achievement highlighting that, for the right student, boarding offers fantastic opportunities and a great experience.

Parents increasingly recognise the value of a boarding education for their children, and the growth in numbers clearly demonstrates the strength and quality of the boarding sector. Hundreds of boarding schools across the UK work tirelessly to provide an all-round education for students that's second to none and admired by parents worldwide.

The sector is, of course, not without its critics and, without a doubt, boarding will not suit every child. Earlier this week, in my address at the 20th anniversary of the York Boarding Schools Group, I challenged those who say as an unquestionable fact that boarding is harmful. This is simply untrue. It inflames opinion rather than raising a legitimate and important issue, and simply does not present a full and honest picture of the sector.

As Ann Mroz quite rightly stated in her editorial in this week's TES: “Once you remove the prejudice, a boarding school will be experienced no differently from any other; some children will love it and others won't. And that's the way we should judge them, too: a school like any other.”

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