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.
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.
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
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.
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: