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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 02-Oct-14 15:09:26

Wounded leaders start very young

Psychotherapy trainer, psycho-historian and author, Nick Duffell tells us about the emotional perils of boarding school for young children, arguing that these prestigious schools create pseudo-adults, and eventually, wounded leaders.

Nick Duffell

Wounded leaders start very young

Posted on: Thu 02-Oct-14 15:09:26


Lead photo

The prestigious Eton College, where many of the UK's leaders were educated.

A new grandparent, I regularly look at the numerous digital pictures I get sent of little Llewyn and feel a huge smile spreading from my heart to my face. Sometimes I think how his pure innocence will bump up against the world when he first goes to school. But I know he won't be sent away to board, at four, like the senior columnist I met last week, or at seven, like our prime minister. Llewyn's parents want to have him at home till he's old enough to make his own life.

True, elite boarding schools can be a fast track to positions of power. But the cost of this unrecognised neglect to the children who suffer this privileged abandonment - and to the nation that is ruled by a cadre of institutionalised boarding school survivors - is high. An ex-boarder myself, I have spent 25 years pioneering an understanding of how children adapt to institutionalization, dissociating from their feelings and developing a pseudo-adult character, the defensively organised Strategic Survival Personality, which severely limits their later lives. It is particularly bad training for intimate and family relationships, and these effects go down the generations. I have also had to acknowledge how it has affected me.

You can see young children developing Boarding School Syndrome on a remarkable BBC 40 Minutes documentary, made 20 years ago, called The Making of Them, in which young boarders were discreetly filmed over their first few weeks at prep school. It is available on YouTube; but careful: it will make you weep or angry, or both. I borrowed its title for my first book, describing psychotherapy with adult ex-boarders, whom I named boarding school survivors. To survive without touch, love and care they have to reinvent themselves; as adults they may never regain or learn emotional intelligence, for self-reliance and success are on the curriculum; feelings and empathy are not.

To survive without touch, love and care they have to reinvent themselves; as adults they may never regain or learn emotional intelligence, for self-reliance and success are on the curriculum; feelings and empathy are not.

Sending children of the well-off away to board is a British obsession. From France, where I spend half my time, our class system seems absurd, our boarding schools archaic, and our politics arrogant. Sometimes people ask me: "Why have children if you then send them away?" At other times: "Why do you talk of leading Europe when you haven't even joined?" The recent near break-up of the United Kingdom points to the political fall-out, with many people disaffected with the elite echelons of home counties power.

In my latest book I point to the politics of private boarding. Tracing the history of entitlement and a negative attitude to children in colonial times, I have come across the fear and grandiosity that characterized what I call the Rational Man Project, with boarding schools as an industrial process to churn out stoic, superior leaders for the Empire. I have added new evidence from several neuroscience experts that shows what a poor training this actually is. In short: you cannot make good decisions without emotional information; you cannot grow a flexible brain without good attachments; you cannot read facial signals if your heart is closed down, and you cannot see the big picture if your brain has been fed on a strict diet of rationality.

So if you really want to do the best for your grandchildren and you have the funds, please think twice about boarding school - unless they are 16 or over.

Nick Duffell is the author of several books, including The Making of Them: the British attitude to children and the boarding school system, Sex, Love and the Dangers of Intimacy and Wounded Leaders: British elitism and the entitlement illusion - a psychohistory. His new book, Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege: a guide to therapeutic work with boarding school survivors, with Thurstine Bassett, will be published by Routledge next year.

By Nick Duffell

Twitter: @nickduffell

tanith Thu 02-Oct-14 15:23:59

I recognise the smile from heart to face on seeing pictures of my youngest grandson and I thank goodness that none of my children or grandchildren were ever in danger of being sent away to school. I can only imagine the effect of isolating a young child from all it knows and loves to a cold and emotional void for years.

Starling Thu 02-Oct-14 15:36:58

I think one of the problem is family traditions which continue through the generations. I would be horrified to have to send a child away to school. A friend of a friend was adopted and then sent to boarding school because that was normal in that family. My feeling was why did they bother to adopt if they were going to send the child away.

goldengirl Thu 02-Oct-14 16:33:22

Our great niece has started at the Royal Ballet; she is 11 and she wanted to go. I suppose this is a different scenario because it is not an ordinary boarding school; but it is a boarding school nevertheless with the additional expectation of doing well in ballet as well as academic subjects. I'm glad our GC are at day schools I must say even though they tire me out on a regular basis.

I had the opportunity to go to boarding school at 11 but said no, a choice which was fortunately respected. I said no not because of missing my family but I didn't like the thought of being in a single sex environment!!!!!!

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 02-Oct-14 16:44:02

Hmm. I went to a girls' boarding school, as a day girl. The boarders always seemed to be a happy community in themselves - a bit like a school family really. I was a tiny bit envious tbh.

Blog sounds a bit chip on shoulder-ish. The boys at Eton always seem very happy when we go to their summer charity fundraising fete and when you see them in the shops around Windsor. And the PM may have boarded since the age of 7, but he seems to be a committed family man now. So I can't see it did him any harm.


jinglbellsfrocks Thu 02-Oct-14 16:45:42

"Wounded leaders indeed". hmm

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 02-Oct-14 16:46:23

Inverted comma in wrong place there. Sorry

merlotgran Thu 02-Oct-14 16:53:01

I have two brothers, one six years older and one six years younger. I hardly knew my elder brother when we were growing up as he was packed off to boarding school at the age of nine when Dad was sent to to the middle East for three consecutive RAF postings. My brother has always behaved a bit like a Dutch uncle to my younger brother and me. He sets himself apart from the rest of the family in a superior way and although he was always my mother's favourite he patronized her and made fun of her achievements.

I only had to spend one year at boarding school much to my relief so my younger brother and I grew up together and although both in our sixties are still very close.

At my mother's funeral last month my older brother gave a Eulogy. It was as though he was talking about a woman we didn't know. There was a hint of sarcasm in all the anecdotes, no warmth, no pride and if there was love it was his interpretation of a relationship that was so formal it was a million miles away from the family life I remember.

He is quite obsessive about his own family and very controlling. They have inherited his snobby, aloof manner and usually shun any invitations to family events other than formal ones. I love him because he is my brother but I can't say I like him very much sad

Tegan Thu 02-Oct-14 16:54:19

But they have to look happy, don't they; young children putting on a brave face to the world. There was a tv series a few years ago about children going off to prep school and it was heartbreaking. Going away to ballet school is different, especially as the child knows that she can always not go if things don't pan out as expected. I saw a load of young children on a train going off to prep school years ago. Even though I was quite young myself at the time [late teens perhaps] it has stayed in my mind ever since. I do know of a child that went to a very good boarding school that specialised in dyslexic children; his mum, who had sadly died when he was quite young had wanted him to go there and it worked out well for him but, again, it was for a reason and he still had a choice. In general, unless it's for a specific reason I find it it a very strange thing to do.

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 02-Oct-14 16:56:30

Kids don't fake it like that!

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 02-Oct-14 16:57:32

These days a lot of it is weekly boarding. A good compromise.

Nandalot Thu 02-Oct-14 18:30:10

My experience is very similar to Merlotgran's. We lived in India at the time and my sister, ten years older than me, was sent to boarding school in England. My father died before it was my brother's and my turn to go. We returned to England and attended day schools. My brother and I are very close but my sister always seemed resentful of the fact that she missed out with our mum. She never recognised any of the things that mum did for her to help her and her family. Indeed, she rewrote history and ascribed things my mum did for her and gave her to other people. This affected our relationship and it was only a few months before my sister died that we began to get close.

Greenfinch Thu 02-Oct-14 19:26:25

I echo what jingl is saying. I used to teach in a boarding school and it was fun (for the students I mean but also for me) . The students I taught came from the other side of the world (Hong Kong and Japan) and apart from a little sadness after Christmas, they all had a whale of a time. The staff were caring and supportive, and really interesting activities were organised for them. At the week-end they had all the gym equipment and computers that they could use and on exeat week-ends they generally went to guardians in London who gave them a good time. They grew into mature and confident girls and although they didn't see their families often, they communicated regularly.

rosesarered Thu 02-Oct-14 20:36:56

I would say it all depends on the character of the boy/girl.Sensitive souls have a harder time than others.If you are shy and anxious, it would be the wrong environment for you.Some parents travel about the world a lot, and feel it's better for the child to be at a good boarding school.I think to label everyone a victim of boarding school is silly.As Greenfinch says there are regular exeats [breaks to go home].
Generally speaking, if you can afford it, I think a good day school of your choice would be better, but it all does depend on your style of life.Sensitive children suffer at all schools, but it has to be remembered that schools like Eton are not like Flashman any more, they are modern and there are always people to speak to if they have problems.They all have mobile phones, tablets, computers etc to send messages home.

rosesarered Thu 02-Oct-14 20:38:48

Having said that, I could not have sent my 7 year old off to board at prep school. I would have found a good day school.13 is old enough to board.That is the age they start at Eton and most Public Schools.

AlieOxon Thu 02-Oct-14 20:42:05

I was threatened with being sent away to boarding school by my mother when she was cross!

janerowena Thu 02-Oct-14 21:37:35

My DS went weekly boarding when he was nine - and he loved it! He became a day pupil at 12, his choice, but at 16 he asked to board again. My father fits the mould described, but DBH also boarded from 7 and he most certainly does not. I think the writer of the article is a bit out of touch with how the schools are now. To put it mildly. The current Head of Eton is an amazing man, quite young, very modern and not Old School.

No, it's not for every child, but I think in the past there were too many men who wanted their son to go to school where they did, whether it suited the child or not.

FlicketyB Thu 02-Oct-14 21:49:48

Not every child who goers to boarding school goes there because of family tradition etc, nor are all children as deprived of love and support at school as this blogger suggests. I first went to boarding school at 7 on medical advice after a prolonged stay in hospital and convalescent home. I have no idea why this advice was given and I think it was wrong. I was there about 5 terms.

However I went willingly back to a different boarding school at 12 because as my father was in the army. I had already attended 9 schools and my parents knew that to stand any chance of getting a good education and passing exams I needed stability in my education. In turn I chose to send DS as a weekly boarder at a local school, preferred by DS as well as us over a local day school because what we all recognised as its gentle and supportive regime for a very bright child with one skin too few who had begun to flounder at his otherwise excellent state primary. DS remains the gentle loving person he always was. His MiL has commented on how loving and nurturing he is with both DDiL and his children.

There are several examples quoted above of families where one went to boarding school and two others didn't and the problems it caused, I suspect the real problem is the divide between one and two. I and my younger sister went to boarding school, we were close in age and our education followed a similar pattern. My youngest sister, 5 years my junior stayed at home and went to day schools except for a brief period of boarding in her first year at secondary school. She acted towards us two older girls and our parents much as the single boarding school children mentioned above. Simply she felt excluded from the life her sisters led and because our mother constantly worried about us and talked about us in our absence my youngest sister always felt she was an also-ran and that DM favoured her two older children over her.

Since our parents and my younger sister have died, we have become closer and talked these things through. It was a revelation to her that when DM was with her two older children, she constantly talked and worried about her youngest. Nevertheless, she still remains very prickly and critical of our DP and emotionally very closed.

Anya Thu 02-Oct-14 23:11:42

I went to a boarding school when I was 7. It wasn't a weekly one either, we there there all term, with no half terms and in,y went home for Christmas holidays, Easter and summer.

Loved every moment of it.

Anya Thu 02-Oct-14 23:12:07

in,y only.

Ana Thu 02-Oct-14 23:17:10

Reminds me of all those books I loved when I was young - The Chalet School series and the Angela Brazil books! I was so envious...

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 02-Oct-14 23:22:05

School Friend magazine. grin

janeainsworth Fri 03-Oct-14 03:56:58

I wonder if any damage is caused to children who attend huge, impersonal comprehensive schools with 2000+ pupils?

absent Fri 03-Oct-14 06:14:12

Families vary hugely but I can't help feeling that family life is an important part of childhood. However understanding and supportive teachers may be, they are not family. I do strongly feel that seven is too young for boarding school. Thinking back to previous boyfriends from public schools where they boarded - a long time ago I realise - I suspect that there was something missing from their psyches.

Greenfinch Fri 03-Oct-14 07:12:54

At the risk of being called sexist ,it has been proved (I think )that girls do better (generally)academically and socially in single sex schools while boys do better in mixed ones. I wonder if the same is true of boarding schools and why some of you are saying it didn't suit the boys you knew. Just a thought !Most boarding schools (but not all )are single sex, I think.