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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

lochysumma Sat 04-Oct-14 16:28:24

I'm with janeainsworth. Every child is an individual and I should not like my grandchildren to have to attend an inner city comprehensive but then I am only judging by hearsay. I have no idea what they are like. I went to boarding school at 11. I loved it.

trisher Mon 06-Oct-14 11:17:53

I have always (jokingly) expressed the opinion that all 13-16 year olds should be sent off to boarding school to give parents a break from the teenage moods and traumas. When they become civilised and more adult they would be allowed home. On a more serious note I don't like the idea of Boarding schools for young children BUT I think Nick Duffell assumes that all families provide a protective and supportive, caring place. There are some families where a boarding school provides a much more stable atmosphere.

Galen Mon 06-Oct-14 12:02:12

I was sent to the friary Lichfied at age 11. There were 30 of us boarders and I think they were the worst 5years of my life. I hated it! It was a boarding grammar school for girls and VERY RELIGIOUS. Church at least once on Sunday's and only improving books allowed to be read while knitting squares for missions!
In the evening the headmistress used to come and give us RE lessons.
I left as the science teaching in the sixth form was non existent, and also they wanted me to take RE, history and English, try for a a scholarship for Oxford to read theology!!!Moi?

janeainsworth Mon 06-Oct-14 14:45:38

I think Philip Larkin is probably nearer the truth than Nick Duffell.

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.”

We're all doomed! grin

nightowl Mon 06-Oct-14 15:09:25

But then if it's your parents that send you away to boarding school.....

I guess the end result is the same, it's your parents that fucked you up (or over, as the case may be). As Nick Dufell explained quite eloquently I think, when talking about the messages given to children who were sent away at a very young age, and without seeking their views.

FlicketyB Mon 06-Oct-14 19:18:40

I always knew why I was at boarding school and knew it was not because my parents wanted me out of the house. First it was on medical advice then later because, as DF was in the army, it was the only way to get an education. I attended 9 primary schools and my parents didn't want me attending another 9 secondary schools.

My parents certainly made the decision about which school without consultation but when it was clear that neither DS or myself liked our school we were offered the opportunity to leave when DF was sent abroad yet again. It was DS and I who made the decision to stay where we were as we realised a move at that point would interfere with our O and A levels respectively.

I know my parents worried about us at school, missed us and every week without fail wrote separately to both of us. The one thing I never doubted through out my childhood, indeed throughout their lives was my parents love and devotion to their children.

grumppa Mon 06-Oct-14 22:32:00

Thanks to the Anthony Buckeridge "Jennings" books I positively looked forward to going to boarding school at the age of ten. Nor was I disappointed; I think my divorced working mother missed me more than I missed her.

I enjoyed boarding school right through to leaving at eighteen, although I could see that some boys did not. I observed the same mix when I taught at a boys' boarding grammar school. Come to think of it, there was a similar mixture of those who liked and disliked school at the CEG (French equivalent of a secondary modern) where I taught in the Paris suburbs - my last teaching job before opting for a very different career.

Duffell is right about preparing young men to run the Empire, but this is hardly news. I have somewhere my Dip. Ed. dissertation entitled "Arnold's Guardians", in which I examined the influence of Plato's theories on Arnold of Rugby's educational ideas. And it was old hat then (1967).

helloLCC Fri 10-Oct-14 12:58:08

I think the danger here is not to project ones own experience or generalise or develop "syndromes". For some children boarding school is not the right schooling experience; for others it is the opportunity of a life time and relished. I agree that age is also a factor. A 13 year old going to school is very different from a 7 year old. The most important thing is that the child is invoved in their education choice, is happy and has good access and connection to the parents'; these days that does happen. If your child is unhappy in any schooling environment, then that needs attention and careful and thoughtful action.

FlicketyB Sat 11-Oct-14 20:16:00


triciamcb1 Fri 17-Oct-14 18:43:22

A member of my husband's family went to Eton. Aged 13, he was called into the headmaster's office to be told his mother had killed herself. When the nurse tried to comfort him, the head told her to leave him alone 'He has to learn to be a man'

Starling Fri 17-Oct-14 18:51:30

triciamcb1 that's so sad. I hope that wouldn't happen nowadays.

grannyactivist Fri 17-Oct-14 21:11:03

One of my friends went to Harrow and hated every minute of his time there - another of my friends loved every minute of her boarding school education and wept when she left. There is no one size fits all.

rosequartz Fri 17-Oct-14 21:46:26

DH went to boarding school at 8 - not from an 'elite' background at all, more the fact that he had lost his father and his mother did not want him brought up in an all-female household.
He hated it at first, got used to it later but never really liked it.

I was always desperate to go as some of my friends did, thinking it would be like St Clare's, but never got the opportunity.

Friends' DC went to boarding school in the 1980s onwards and absolutely loved it.

rosequartz Fri 17-Oct-14 21:49:28

Galen one of my friends went to the Friary at Lichfield (not as a boarder though). She was my best friend at primary school and the family moved to Lichfield when she was 11.