Boarding schools may produce leaders – but do they produce good leaders?
In our new Class Ceiling series, we unpack how class actually affects young people today – from our jobs, to the way we have sex, to our general experience of the world.
How do you feel about the privately educated? Maybe you’re angry at them for perpetuating inequality, or jealous of their material comfort. Or maybe you couldn’t care less. But however you feel about some of Britain’s most privileged people, it’s doubtful you’ve ever considered feeling pity for them.
It’s understandable: on the surface, going to boarding school doesn’t seem like much of a plight. You had to leave your family’s mansion to go and live in another, bigger mansion? You had three hot meals a day? Your biggest concern is when you’ll be able to go hunting again, while state-educated children are being strip-searched at school? Cry me a river. But while it is unequivocally true that boarding schools offer high-quality education, limitless networking opportunities, and immense social privilege, it’s equally true that boarding schools also often create psychologically troubled adults. Of course, many former boarders do enjoy their time at school, and not all boarding schools are uber-conservative. For example, at Frensham Heights School, which is part of the Progressive Education Network, students don’t wear uniforms and call teachers by their first names. But the fact remains that many people who went to more ‘traditional’ boarding schools can bear psychological scars from their experiences – particularly those who attended from a young age.
This much is clear from the work of Joy Schaverian, the psychotherapist and author who coined the term ‘boarding school syndrome’. While boarding school syndrome is not a medical diagnosis, the term acknowledges the existence of a common cluster of psychological issues often found in adults who attended boarding school. Symptoms of boarding school syndrome are complex and varied, but can include difficulties with intimacy, workaholism, inability to relax, isolation, substance abuse, a sense of failure, as well as physical, sleep, and sexual problems. Granted, many state-educated kids have a tough time at school too and you don’t need a psychology degree to know that experiences in our formative years shape us into the adults we become. But as Schaverian’s work has uncovered, many adults who attended boarding school as children report similar psychological issues which stem directly from their experience of boarding.
What’s so traumatising about boarding schools? The most obvious factor is that boarders live at school: mothers and fathers are swapped for matrons and housemasters, as children grow up away from the security and stability found at home with family. And in spite of how clearly devastating this can be for some children, they’re encouraged to repress their feelings too. “They’re not permitted to miss their mummy and daddy,” says Nick Duffell, a psychotherapist, author of Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion, and the founder of the Boarding School Survivors network. “They know it’s costing their parents shedloads of money so they don’t want to show their parents that they’re unhappy. At the same time, their peer group is formed of other children who are in a similar state, and they’re all looking out for who’s going to be the one to cry and give the game away.”
There’s also an undeniable psychological impact from being repeatedly told to be grateful for something which is harming you. Helen, 24, was sent to boarding school as a teenager. She didn’t enjoy her time at school and describes the environment as “cliquey and judgemental”, but when she voiced her concerns to her father, he brushed them off. “My dad comes from a lower-middle-class background, so he wasn’t very receptive to any complaints I had,” she tells me. This, according to Richard Beard, author of Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England, is at the crux of the issue. “Boarding school syndrome comes from the difference between what boarders are told it’s right to feel and what they actually feel,” he explains. Feeling increasingly trapped and out of control, Helen developed issues with eating, exercise and body image. “I just wanted to control something in my life,” she tells me.
“Boarding school syndrome comes from the difference between what boarders are told it’s right to feel and what they actually feel. They’re told they’re very lucky to be there, but in fact, they feel miserable” – Richard Beard
Arguably the most high-profile ‘case’ of boarding school syndrome is the sitting Prime Minister, who at 11 years old was shipped off to Ashdown House before being dispatched to Eton two years later. At 18, he drifted into the University of Oxford, before following in the footsteps of 20 other old Etonians and meandering into No. 10 Downing Street. He’s essentially floated from one archaic, gothic building to the next, existing entirely in a bubble of privilege. So why do we have so many ex-boarders who, like Johnson, occupy these positions of power? Privilege is the obvious answer, but how does this actually manifest?
Boarding schools are likely to breed the sort of entitlement that leads a famously shoddy journalist to think he has what it takes to lead a country. This brazen cockiness paired with a posh voice, vague knowledge of classical subjects, and knack for buttering up the right people is, unfortunately, enough to convince many people that ex-Etonians and their like are fit for leadership. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. “Neuroscience tells us now that if you haven’t got emotional intelligence you cannot make good decisions,” Duffell says. “That’s scientifically proven.”
Beard adds that having been exposed to the tribal in-group mentality that flourishes at boarding school, one thing ex-boarders are good at is appeasing the right people to elevate themselves into positions of leadership where they’re beyond reproach and safe to laugh at all the little people beneath them. “It’s not what’s good or what’s right that’s important – it’s what’s safe, and what’s safe is loyalty to the group,” he says. This is ultimately why we now have a Prime Minister who called gay men “tank-topped bum boys“, Black people “piccaninnies”, compared burka-wearing Muslim women to “letterboxes“, and allegedly quipped that he was happy to “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lying is also endemic to boarding school culture in that image is often regarded as more important than honesty. This is something Jemima*, 19, experienced firsthand. “Many of my [person of colour] friends felt frightened as the bullying was very intense,” she says, adding that staff covered up incidents of “hate speech, bullying, racism and sexual assault” to protect the school’s pristine appearance. “I think a lot of us came out quite uneasy and almost paranoid,” she says. “I’m way less trusting than I used to be and now I often expect the worst from people.” Beard adds that lying also comes naturally to former boarders, who spend their childhoods lying to their parents – and even denying their feelings to themselves – about their experience at school.
It’s abundantly clear that to change the way politics operates in this country, we need to address the problem at the root. But for years this has proved a near-impossible task. Post-WWII, Clement Attlee intended to abolish public schools. In 1965, Harold Wilson set up the Public Schools Commission to investigate the phasing out of private schools. Back in 2019, Jeremy Corbyn proposed integrating private schools into the state sector and redistribute the funds to other schools. But obviously, none of these plans have ever come to fruition, largely because doing so would prove costly and the establishment are too attached to these institutions anyway.
It’s evident that the radical, systemic change needed to address this issue will take time. But in the meantime, there is a way of addressing this problem on an individual level. Towards the end of our interview, I ask Helen if there’s anything else she’d like to mention that we’ve not spoken about. She says: “I would add that I would never, ever, ever send my kids to boarding school, ever. Absolutely not.”
Maybe it’s too late for Boris Johnson, but it’s not too late for the next generation.
*Name has been changed