Does boarding school damage children into adulthood?

Boarding school education has been found to have a major impact on people’s long-term mental health and personal relationships. But, what exactly are these effects? I spoke to Nick Duffell, an expert on the topic, as well as Chantal who experienced boarding school and its long-term impacts first-hand.

Boarding school education has been found to affect people into later life. (Image: Eton College – Wikimedia Commons)

Growing up I was well aware that boarding schools existed as I was what my parents would describe as a bit of a difficult child. “We will ship you off to boarding school if you don’t start behaving!” was something I heard often if I was being disobedient, much like Poppy in Wild Child. However, unlike Poppy’s character (spoiler alert!), my parents never actually went through with it.

I always assumed that the only kids that went to boarding schools were either extremely naughty or wizards at Hogwarts. It never even crossed my mind that people would actually be sent to boarding school out of choice.

My first known interaction with an ex-boarder was when I arrived at Newcastle University and met my flatmates for the first time in our halls of residences, ironically named Castle Leazes, and I was was asked by one individual, “So, what boarding school did you go to?”

Prior to this, I was unaware that my university was relatively ‘posh’ with the 24th highest intake of private school students out of 142 universities in the UK. This meant that I was bound to be exposed to many more ex-boarders over the next four years, some of whom became some of my closest friends, whilst others did not.

Newcastle University has the 24th highest intake of privately educated students, meaning I came across a fair few ex-boarders during my time here. (Image: Newcastle University – Creative Commons)

I became fascinated by the concept of boarding school education as for me, moving away from my family home, my parents, and my friends as a free-spirited and independent 18-year-old was painful enough. The thought of going through this at as young as seven years old was unimaginable.

I began wondering whether being sent to live in the care of complete strangers would affect a person’s personal relationships, mental health, and general personality. I discovered, on the whole, this was most definitely the case. 

Some of my ex-boarder peers openly discussed their resentment towards their parents for sending them to boarding school at a young age, whilst others struggled to talk about anything even remotely resembling feelings and emotions. But was this all just a coincidence?

Boarding School Syndrome

Boarding school syndrome” is an identifiable group of learned behaviours and emotional states that can stem from growing up at boarding school. It can lead to major psychological distress.

The symptoms include but are not limited to:

  • Difficulties forming relationships
  • Emotional numbness
  • Depression

The term was originally coined by Joy Schaverien but followed on from the work of Nick Duffell who wrote The Making of Them, a moving and influential book about the trauma boarding school inflicts. 

In 1993 Duffell helped the BBC create a documentary of the same name which follows young boys starting boarding prep school. I would urge you to spare just 40 minutes of your time to watch the film to get an idea of what it was like for these boys.

The documentary also sees middle-aged ex-boarders openly discussing the psychological impact of being handed over by their mothers and put into the care of strangers.

Within the film, a quote from psychotherapist Piers Partridge conveys perfectly the damage that this system can do to a child:

Perhaps the most fundamental issue in here about boarding is that no matter how well-meaning the boarding schools are, no matter how committed the staff are, they do not give the child in their care love. So, when you put a child in boarding school, you are talking about putting a child in an environment without love for maybe three-quarters of the year, at an age in which love is so important to that child.

Piers Partridge – Psychotherapist

I was fortunate enough to speak to Nick Duffell about the topic of boarding school syndrome which he prefaced with, “I have the make a lot of generalisations about the issue… but the boarder never really comes home again.”

Ex-boarder Chantal also discusses the impact her experience had on her relationship with her parents and the upbringing of her own children.

Conversation with Nick Duffell regarding boarding school syndrome, and ex-boarder Chantal who discusses how boarding impacted the upbringing of her own children.

Evidence clearly shows that boarding school education can have a major psychological impact on children well into adulthood. Of course, not every ex-boarder suffers long-term damage, but what is clear is that these appear to be the select few that have avoided being traumatised in some way by their institutionalised childhoods.

If you would like to learn more about boarding school syndrome or seek help yourself, you can learn more and find support here:

5 comments

  1. Your insight is really welcome to me – my brother has been sent to prison and his life utterly ruined, and I’m sure the basis of his difficulties lies in the fact that he was sent to boarding school aged 10.
    I would love to find someone who would be interested in his story – obviously with total confidentiality. If you are, or you know of anyone who might be I would be very pleased to hear from you.
    It’s not a good story…

    1. Hi Sarah! You may want to take a look at the Facebook group “Boarding School Survivors to see that your brother is very far from being alone or even especially unusual. Loads of help, support and advice available there, all from people damaged by boarding school in one way or another. I found the group after suddenly being confronted by the pain and hurt that I’d been supressing for forty years, following a sudden very serious illness and the group really have helped me to transform my life.

  2. I went to a military boarding school, where I was outed as queer at 14. I cannot decribe how awful the bullying from staff and pupils was. I ended up being a heavy drug user by the time I was 17 and it took me years to recover from that. I have no relationship to speak of with my brother, and do not speak to my mother at all. Its like my family forgot I mattered or even existed after they sent me away.

    1. Hi Tor! I relate to your experience. May I suggest that you take a look at the Facebook group “Boarding School Survivors”. You will find endless support, understanding and advice there from more people than you’d believe who have been hurt by the boarding school experience. It helped me no end when I found it, after the hurt, fear and damage that I’d suppressed for more than forty years came back to haunt me after sudden serious illness. You’re a GREAT GUY and lots of us would really like to get to know you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *