Boarding schools have long been considered ‘psychopath factories’ in which abuse and humiliation are a fixture of daily life. Yet it is from these very institutions that many of our rulers have been selected.
Comedian, actor and marathon man Eddie Izzard believes the death of his mother, years at boarding school and ‘coming out’ as transgender have toughened him up. Hannah Stephenson catches up with the star and discovers his next challenge might just be the biggest…
Fifty-five-year-old Eddie Izzard is a tough character but you can understand why when you look at his past. The son of BP’s chief accountant Harold Izzard, his mother Dorothy Ella died from bowel cancer when he was six, a year after the family returned to Britain from the north, but his parents didn’t tell him she was dying and he wasn’t prepared for the emotional loss.
Soon after, he and his older brother Mark were sent to boarding school, another traumatic event which led to him battening the hatches emotionally, as detailed in a chapter he entitles ‘Exile‘.
“We didn’t see Dad for two thirds of the year. I did a lot of crying and wailing. I was unhappy about everything and feeling sorry for myself. I cried till I was 11,” he recalls.
“Boarding school toughens you up. It can make you emotionally dead because you are emotionally blocked, but you are tough. You can’t empathise or sympathise.”
He didn’t cry again until he was 19, when a cat was run over in the road in front of him. He picked it up and, realising that he needed to feel something, forced himself to cry.
“I ripped open those pathways to ensure I knew how to cry. I knew it was bad not feeling anything.”
At an event last week called “The Dark Side of Business,” held at the Corinthia Hotel in London, neuroscientist Tara Swart spoke about why psychopathic traits were so common in high-powered people.
She said many signs of psychopathy were also synonymous with those of strong leadership, such as callousness, impulsivity, aggression, and showing little emotion.
With more men in CEO positions than women, Swart says, boardrooms are severely lacking female characteristics such as empathy, intuition, and creativity. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and Swart acknowledged that some women were bad at empathy and some men were good at it — but as a general rule, she said, these tend to be female traits.
Some of Swart’s male clients were sent off to boarding school at a young age and had horrible experiences of bullying, institutionalised violence, and humiliation. But women experience these things too.
Business Insider asked whether the ways men and women coped with these feelings of shame and rejection had an impact on more men ending up with psychopathic traits.
[But no mention of Boarding School Syndrome?]
And parents who want an exclusive, privileged education for their children will not want this for their children…. Merely a way to prop up overpriced fee-charging boarding schools when UK boarding industry is in decline. Unless propped up by overseas children. Boarding School Syndrome for all?
The Telegraph and Times reports:
Public schools are launching a new diversity drive that will see children who risk being put into care offered places at Eton College and Harrow School instead.
Under the initiative, named The Boarding Schools Partnership, youngsters from some of the most vulnerable families will enroll at some of Britain’s top boarding schools.
More than 80 councils have signed up to the scheme which will be launched on Tuesday by the schools minister Lord Nash and Lord Adonis, a former Labour education minister.
Harrow, Rugby, Benenden and Eton are among the schools taking part. Colin Morrison, chair of the Boarding Schools Partnership, said the school fees, typically ranging from £25,000-£39,000 a year, will be covered by their local councils.
Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said that recruiting children for the programme was “incredibly challenging“.
“It was a real struggle to recruit enough young people to make even a smaller pilot trial statistically secure,” he said at the time.
“One of the major barriers was that some local authorities wanted to keep the children where they are, which is of course understandable. Some were worried that they wouldn’t fit in or that boarding school wouldn’t be right for them.”
[Not the only ones probably…]
African countries get that early boarding is a no-no. Why doesn’t the UK?
“Sending children aged below ten to a boarding school is denying them their basic rights, which include parental love and care. The remarks were made by the Acting Director of Temeke Municipality, Mr John Bwana who is also Head of Children Department in the Municipality, in Dar es Salaam on the occasion to mark the International African Child Day.”
“Mr Bwana, who was the guest of honour said sending children below ten years old to boarding schools contributes to lack of parental love and care to the children.”
26 June 1997. The day the first Harry Potter fantasy was published.
By 2002, the UK boarding school industry was crowing about the tales being a white knight for their declining industry. They started refurbishing their dorms, building new boarding houses on the back of a work of fiction. Written by a non-boarder.
The reality is that sexual and other abuses continue. Just read the news reports on this site about current, active boarding school abuse cases. No amount of fictional wizardry can replace the trauma and abandonment of boarding.
2002 also saw the founding of Boarding Concern, creating a support and advocacy organisation for those identifying as boarding school survivors.
Today, twenty years later, the boarding decline continues, propped up by the predatory acquisition of children from overseas.
And the Hogwart’s Generation of Millennial former boarders are now beating a path to our door. Our analytics show they represent 20% of visitors to our website.
What we have learned from the Harry Potter generation is that boarding should remain just a work of fiction, a fantasy. There is no need to send children away to boarding school.
There were things about my early childhood that I did not understand. I accepted, but did not really question. I knew the bare bones: that my father had died in the war and that, to enable her to pursue her career in the documentary film industry, my mother sent me to a boarding school when I was nearly three. And I knew that she had married my stepfather in 1947, but it wasn’t until four years later, when I was 10 and she was pregnant with my half-brother, that I finally came home for good to lead a family life.
My childhood before that was a bit unorthodox and rootless, but not unhappy. The schools I went to were well chosen, caring and liberal. I remember long, golden summers on the Sussex Downs spent with friends of my mother and filled with fun and kindness. My paternal grandmother, who often looked after me, was always loving and welcoming – with buttons to sort and cakes for tea.
Alex Renton examines the disturbing brutality of boarding school life.
Short of prison, what can estrange a child so completely from parental love as boarding school?
Parents are replaced with new and often unsafe attachments; predatory abuse is not uncommon. My own boarding school in south London, called Brightlands (a misnomer for such a dark Victorian-era barracks), traded in beatings. Any of us caught masturbating or talking after lights out was made to strip in the bathroom down the corridor, where a sports master (it was always a sports master) beat us with a slipper. It was a shaming business that fills me even today with impotent perplexity. In some unformulated way, I understood that the punishments were a sexual outrage: the sight of livid marks on our posh white backsides must have excited that master.
At eight, in 1969, Alex Renton was sent to one of the country’s most expensive boarding houses, Ashdown House, a feeder for our most exclusive public schools (he later went to Eton). Young Alex knew nothing about the paedophilia and sexualisation of life at Ashdown, though his father (Tim Renton, later Margaret Thatcher’s last chief whip) must have had an idea: “Remember, if any of the older boys try to take you into a bush, just say ‘No’.” Naturally Alex had an abject terror of parental abandonment. Yet crying after lights out was punished with a beating. The headmaster turned out to be a sadist whose pleasure was to spank bared bottoms until they bled.
Renton, a “self-declared survivor” of sexual abuse, was frequently caned at Ashdown but, as he writes in this grimly absorbing account of British boarding-school life, it was not done to “sneak” on one’s tormentors. Boys had to take their punishment like men – like the men who meted it out. Life at Ashdown is so tear-jerking and brutal that Dickens might have invented the place. One maths teacher, Mr Keane, liked to offer sweets in return for a “rummage inside our shorts”. Renton told his mother about the fumblings but the headmaster’s wife managed to convince her that a formal complaint “would cause unpleasantness” and, anyway, “children made these things up”. Thus Renton was taught early on to expect disappointment.
Australia has a different reason to the UK for providing boarding education. One of geographical distance. But homesickness is no respecter of reason.
“”In the UK, the popularity of boarding is less of a geographical factor and is much more of a realisation of what a boarding education can do; that it is more wholesome, well-rounded and incorporates making ‘better people‘ as opposed to just academically strong or sporting excellence – it’s much more holistic than that.”
Silcock, who began boarding aged seven, often speaks with parents worried about homesickness before their child begins boarding.”
We are not sure how Boarding School Syndrome, homesickness and abandonment makes former boarders “wholesome, well-rounded better people”…
Tanya Byron, a clinical psychologist and broadcaster, told headteachers at the Boarding Schools’ Association conference in York this afternoon that “it’s not an exaggeration to say there’s a mental health crisis in children and young people”.
She said colleagues in London were seeing “amazing young people” who are “coming in chopping into their arms because don’t get enough A*s, but their mate does, and they are not thin enough and they are not hench enough and they haven’t got the right six pack. It’s all about perfection.”
She added: “And I would say in the independent sector you see more of that than anything else because often these kids come from families that are very aspirational.
“With respect to you all, because I understand you are businesses, you have to protect your brand and you have to get the grades, but at what cost? That’s all I’m asking you.
“What are we doing for children young people? Are they rounded? Are they resilient? I would argue no.”
When challenged by one head, she said said she “totally agreed” there was similar pressure in the state sector caused by league tables and the need to protect brands.
However, she added that the biggest group of problems that are growing are “amongst children of families that you see”, and added: “I would argue the mental health difficulties within the independent school sector is huge“.
Julie Robinson, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, said: “I think our schools are particularly good on pastoral care and support. There is very good tutoring. Particularly in boarding, you’ve got house parents, you’ve got tutors, you’ve got layers and layers of pastoral care. And that’s one of the benefits – the wrap around care for the whole child.”
[This is the same Julie Robinson that failed to understand Boarding School Syndrome on a recent C4 News interview…]