Outwardly happy boarding school pupils are putting up a façade to hide an “enormous” amount of anxiety, while even those students who receive good pastoral support can be damaged by going to school away from their families, a new book claims.
Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege, a guide for therapists working with people whom they refer to as “boarding school survivors”, suggests that even contemporary boarding schools, which offer more significant support for their pupils, can cause children psychological trauma.
Advocates of boarding have responded to the claims, saying that the situation has been improving, with mental health issues no longer “shut up in a trunk”. They added that boarders are “genuinely happy”.
Psychotherapist Nick Duffell, a former boarding school teacher and co-author of the book, is now calling for boarding to be banned for pupils under 16.
“Children often learn to put on a happy mask,” he said. “They’re used to giving a high-functioning appearance. That happiness is what schools are selling. But those children are projecting a confidence that’s brittle. It hides the enormous amount of anxiety.
“Children have to live in an institution, without their parents, without anyone recognising that they’ve been traumatised.”
Mental health agenda
The publication of the book came a week after the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) group of private schools – which includes many boarding institutions – devoted its spring conference to mental health. The HMC incorporates more than 270 independent schools, including 22 in Scotland.
TESS also reported this month how some schools are now using a system of regular online tests to monitor the psychological health of pupils and to plan interventions.
And the annual Boarding Schools’ Association conference, held this week, focused on how boarding could solve the problems of some of the country’s most vulnerable children.
The Springboard Bursary Foundation, which provides bursaries for disadvantaged children, has placed 200 pupils in boarding schools over four years – a figure that the organisation plans to double next year.
Buttle UK, which also distributes funds for boarding school places for vulnerable children, recently launched a three-year research study looking at the impact that boarding schools have on the lives of these children.
In December, England schools minister Lord Nash wrote to directors of children’s services, asking them to assess to what extent opportunities such as these were taken up in their local authorities. He said: “We all understand that boarding schools will never be appropriate for most young people, whether vulnerable or not. But we also see increasing evidence that – for the right young person at the right time – a well-chosen boarding school really can transform the life chances of a vulnerable, disadvantaged young person.”
Thurstine Basset, co-author of Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege, acknowledges this claim. “Maybe, if you come from a more dysfunctional family, boarding school is a better place to be,” he said. “But for the vast majority of pupils, who come from loving, caring families, why would you want to spend three-quarters of your time in an institution, rather than at home?”
‘Pupils choose to board’
Leo Winkley, headteacher at St Peter’s School in York, argues that this view is based on an outdated vision of boarding school. “In the 21st century, often the children are the ones doing the choosing and persuading their parents that they want to board,” he said.
“Boarding nowadays is a supportive and open communal experience, and enjoyment is actually high up on the agenda. The mental health conversation is happening, rather than being shut up in a trunk.”
However, Mr Basset claims that the quality of boarding life is an irrelevance; it is the separation from their parents that causes children emotional damage. “You’re still breaking psychological attachments,” he said. “We say that’s a trauma. It’s a form of abuse. Something’s been done to a child that they probably don’t want.
“The child is neglected, basically. But their parents have made lots of sacrifices. The child doesn’t want to upset their parents. They want to fit in. It just gets glossed over and comes out in later life.”
Robin Fletcher, chief executive of the Boarding Schools’ Association, which represents more than 500 boarding schools, insists that the pupils he meets are not cultivating any buried traumas. “When you ask any boarder why they’re enjoying the experience, they always look at you as if you’re mad and say, ‘Because I’m here with my friends’,” he said.
“The days of the Lord of the Flies set-up are gone. In many respects, children at boarding school have more pastoral eyes on them than any others. I think they’re genuinely happy because boarding is right for them and they’re there with their friends. I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.”
Mr Duffell thinks imposing a minimum age of 16 is important. “We think that the kinds of problems that we’re seeing in adults – which are very, very difficult to come back from – could be prevented that way,” he said.
But Mr Fletcher insisted that age is not a factor. “Boarding isn’t right for everybody,” he said. “Some children will thrive and flourish in boarding, and I don’t think it makes any difference what age that person is. I have met younger boarders and asked if they’re enjoying it. Their answer is: ‘I’m loving it.’”