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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

nightowl Fri 03-Oct-14 07:16:59

I watched the video referred to in the blog last night and found it quite heartbreaking. I could not imagine sending my 7 year old grandson away to boarding school and couldn't imagine what it would do to him. All those little boys in the programme were trying desperately to believe the stuff they had been told about what a wonderful opportunity it was, how much fun it would be, and as one of them said 'it will make me be able to manage on my own'. At 9? Really? When all they really wanted was their mummy. So sad.

Marmight Fri 03-Oct-14 07:41:36

I went to boarding school at 11. I was an only child and it was thought I would come out of my 'shell'. (it certainly had the desired effect!). After two years I became a weekly boarder which was great - a home life at weekends and back to my other 'family' in the week. I think boarding is a much easier life these days - some schools even allow pupils to take pets! shock. In the 60's the regime was pretty strict but on the whole I enjoyed it. Apart from the fact that we couldn't have afforded it, we never considered sending any of our children away to school. The time you have with them is short and precious and should be treasured.

Anya Fri 03-Oct-14 07:46:33

You may have a point there Greenfinch. My boarding school was a teaching convent run by highly intelligent nuns (not always the case in some convents). It was girls only. We had girle from all over the world and of all different faiths.
We were in dormitories of about a dozen with girls of the same age. Each had a bed and locker separated by curtains. We all ate together in the refractory.
I just seem to remember having lots of friends always in tap. Huge gardens to play in and a very easy going sort of discipline. And Tuck Shop.

Nelliemoser Fri 03-Oct-14 08:29:01

I would suggest that nowadays schools of all kinds are a lot more sensitive to children's emotional needs that they were in our day.

As probably as probably are parents. Which might make the public school stiff upper lip "syndrome" much less prevalent.

A number of you who had been to boarding schools appear to have had parents in the armed forces and have been moved around quite a lot because of this; in which case a boarding school could offer some stability with education.

I still think though attending boarding school for under teenagers is harsh particularly if the child has no choice in the decision.

There really is no shortage of very good private day schools around. I still question why have kids and then pack them off to boarding school and only see them in the holidays.

We no longer have lots of parents living abroad controlling the British Empire who need to leave their children at boarding schools in England.

petallus Fri 03-Oct-14 08:34:25

Blimey! All these Gransnetters who went to boarding school or were day pupils. A higher percentage than in the general population I suspect. I knew we were an elite group grin

I used to read Enid Blyton and think I would have loved to be a border, especially if I could have gone home ar weekends.

I don't have much sympathy with Nick Duffell. It's irritating when adults who have had a privileged education whinge on about it as though they were hard done by. I doubt they would have been any happier in a bog standard sec mod.

Nelliemoser Fri 03-Oct-14 08:55:28

pettalus grin It might be that those who have been are just the ones to post on the subject I doubt if they are a big %tage of Gnrs.

However if you had been sent off at an early age, you would probably have absorbed the idea that this is going to do you good and you should be grateful.

It is likely that for many young children in the 40s, 50s and 60s this is something few children would have protested about. Mummy and Daddy knew best. Challenging that was just not an option. How things have changed?

inishowen Fri 03-Oct-14 09:05:04

I went to an ordinary primary school as a day pupil. I was damaged by three teachers. From the age of nine until eleven I was caned by these three teachers. My crime? usually a spelling mistake, getting sums wrong, and once for talking in assembly. One teacher was female and the other two were men. I used to tell my mum and she told me to stop telling her as it was upsetting my grandmother! I felt so alone during this time. When I went to "big" school I expected the punishments to be worse. It took me about a year to realise that I was NOT going to be hurt in this school. All I'm saying is, any school can do damage to a child, not just boarding schools.

saraband Fri 03-Oct-14 09:45:46

I was at boarding school from the age of 4. My father died in service (RAF) in Malta so we were shipped home and lived with my grandfather in his 2 bedroom flat. My mother had to work so my brother and I were both sent to (different) boarding schools, funded by the armed forces. I hated it. It has made me a rebel, resistant to and resentful of authority. On the other hand, I am resourceful and independent. My relationship with my mother was severely damaged: for a very long time I couldn't forgive her for doing that to me, even though I recognised her reasons. I think that the only thing that saved me from further damage was the fact that the boarding 'school' was in fact boarding 'house' and supplied pastoral care only: we were sent out to day schools from there. I loved my day school and for me it supplied the emotional growth that was otherwise denied me.

jinglbellsfrocks Fri 03-Oct-14 10:40:01

Oh! 4 was very Young. How sad. I'm glad your day school partly redeemed your situation for you.

Nelliemoser Fri 03-Oct-14 12:18:20

Saraband That is really dreadful.

The RNIB "sunshine homes for blind babies" used to take blind children from the age of two or three. I had a colleague who went through that system and he seemed to survive emotionally. He was funny and outgoing in the extreme.

GillT57 Fri 03-Oct-14 13:09:44

Boarding schools have their place when parents are travelling around with the forces or perhaps are working in dangerous places as medics or similar, but otherwise I fail to see why one would do it. I had an extraordinary conversation with the wife of one of the partners where I used to work; I was about to go on maternity leave and as usual was getting all sorts of advice. She told me how they didnt know what a night's sleep was until their daughter was 7, When I asked what happened at 7 to stop her getting up in the night, she looked at me aghast and said ' she went to school!' surprised that I had to ask. shock

janeainsworth Fri 03-Oct-14 13:17:51

inishowen caning was routine in my state primary school too, for similar 'offences'. I think this affected not only those who suffered it.
Like you going to secondary school where there was no corporal punishment was a revelation.

nightowl Fri 03-Oct-14 13:39:56

I think the most chilling thing in the documentary was one father who was reminiscing about his own experience of boarding school, who said he remembered one boy who had hated it so much that his parents had had to have him sedated to bring him back at the start of the school term. Hopefully that would never happen nowadays, but it made my blood run cold.

GillT57 Fri 03-Oct-14 15:17:39

A colleague of mine was recalling being left at boarding prep school and sobbing her eyes out, then told me about her own son doing the same but still dragging him back at the start of term. Odd. Meant to make a 'man' of him, but going by the ex boarding school chaps that I went out with, there is definitely something missing, they are too self sufficient, too self contained. Married a nice gentle helpless state pupil instead.

Nelliemoser Fri 03-Oct-14 16:19:20

Flipping heck! I have just watched that documentary.

It's the body language of the boys and those two parents that is so telling.

The boys were so clearly parroting what the have been told to think about the benefits of boarding.

The mum of George did not look convinced that it was a good idea at all. I wonder if she was being pressured by her husband to send the boy. As I have said before on here good day prep schools are readily available and I would think if the parents both work a Nanny would be cheaper than boarding school fees.

None of those boys were in a position other than to agree with the headmaster when he was going on about how soon they would settle down.

nightowl Fri 03-Oct-14 16:36:21

I think it was George's glasses that touched me the most Nellie (if I've got the right child), especially when he was washing his little face with them dangling off his ears. I just wanted to scoop him up. I wonder what they're all doing now?

jinglbellsfrocks Fri 03-Oct-14 16:49:44

Ok! Stop it! Please! sad

I think thirteen is a good age for boarding school - if that's what the child wants. Certainly no younger than eleven.

annodomini Fri 03-Oct-14 17:27:39

I could never have parted with either of my DSs at thirteen or any other age up to the end of school. I was fine with DS2 going off to Uni, probably because that's what I had done myself. DS1 hung around a bit longer because he was training on the job.

Nelliemoser Fri 03-Oct-14 19:37:12

nightowl Yes George looked very young and very vulnerable. I think he was eight but he appeared to be a lot younger.

I wanted to thump those teachers.

jamsidedown Fri 03-Oct-14 19:47:08

My DH was sent away to boarding school aged seven and it had a terrible effect on him which continues to today. He was born ten years after his youngest sibling and always felt he wasn't wanted. When at home he was mostly brought up by his sister. No one went when he graduated from university. He is fiercely loyal to me and close family members but finds it hard to make friends or to express empathy although I know he loves me dearly. I recognise what Nick says. Boarding school, although seen by some as privileged education is not all tuck shops, feasts in the dorm etc. it can be bullying, intimidation and a form of cruelty, although I hesitate to say it, akin to child abuse.

Anya Fri 03-Oct-14 19:59:33

Sounds like (with the odd exception) girls cope better with boarding than boys. Perhaps that's why there's no books called Malcolm at Mallory Towers or Colin at the Chalet School.

Tegan Fri 03-Oct-14 20:03:41

That was the documentary that I saw years ago, which had such an effect on me sad, probably compounded by the fact that my children would have still been quite young then and tucked up in bed asleep when I watched it.

rubysong Fri 03-Oct-14 20:12:34

My two sons boarded from the age of eleven and are now well-adjusted delightful young men. They are certainly not emotionally damaged. One is a devoted husband and father and the other has a good relationship with his girlfriend. They are both 'people' persons and have many very good friends. The friends they made at school have been important to them for 25 years. Private education was made possible because my husband was in the Royal Navy, plus my salary. We had concerns about the size of our local comprehensive and some of the things that were going on there. We took care in the choice of school, visiting the three within reasonable travelling distance and meeting all the headteachers, (which ruled out one of the schools). We involved DS1 in the decision and they both enjoyed their time there.

jamsidedown Fri 03-Oct-14 21:47:05

Everyone has their own experience, good, bad or indifferent - as in the rest of life, generalisations are never helpful!

yogagran Sat 04-Oct-14 01:31:00

I'm another one who went to boarding school. I was 10 and it was right for me, I look back on it with happy memories but my best friend there hated it. Just depends on the person really