A headmaster has tried to reassure parents his Tunbridge Wells school is not a “pushy hot house” after it was rated “excellent” in all areas in its latest inspection.
Holmewood House School is a private day and boarding school for boys and girls aged 3 to 13 in Langton Green led by James Marjoribanks.
It was awarded the Independent Schools Inspectorate’s top rating for both “the achievement of pupils, including their academic development” and “the personal development of pupils”.
For centuries the royal family has been a bastion of the “stiff upper lip”, eschewing public displays of emotion and seldom betraying any personal vulnerability or inner strife. Prince Harry’s recent interview on mental health and his battles with his own demons is a brave and welcome departure from that tradition. “There may be a time and a place for the stiff upper lip,” he said, “but not at the expense of your health”.
The Old Etonian John Julius Norwich, asked for a memory that he thought summed up the spirit of his school, offered the following: after a boy had killed himself “the housemaster summoned the whole house and asked if anybody could suggest a reason. The young David Ormsby-Gore put up his hand and said, ‘Could it have been the food, sir?’” This strikes me as appallingly funny; or funny and appalling. It captures – in its black bad taste and high-stakes insouciance – some of what public schools teach their students. Nothing is so serious it can’t be a joke – and the joke, as Alex Renton notes, both fences with authority and obscurely reinforces it.
In 2014, Renton wrote in the Observer about his experiences in the boarding prep school Ashdown House, describing how he was sexually molested by a teacher; and how, when his contemporaries complained about abuse, they were themselves savagely punished for sneaking. In response to his article, he heard from hundreds with similar stories.
Here is a wide-ranging inquiry into the phenomenon of boarding schools in the UK. Renton paints a picture of class-based groupthink, made-up traditions, contagious snobbery and – in Larkin’s phrase – man handing on misery to man, and it deepening like a coastal shelf. It is striped with pungent quotations from those who have been through the system and been hurt by it. What’s most odd is that parents who had themselves been deeply unhappy at school went on, generation after generation, to send their children to the same places. Renton suggests that “normalisation” – rationalising the pain by deciding that it was good for you after all, or that your parents knew best – may be the psychological mechanism at work.
Violence, cruelty and sexual confusion are as much a part of boarding school literature as japes and cricket. Alex Renton surveys a troubled genre from Kipling to Rowling
When Alex Renton wrote about being abused at boarding school, he didn’t anticipate the huge response. Or that he’d end up breaking down in a police station
It is, they say, good to tell the story. Let it out: nightmares are best cured by daylight. But what do you do next? Three years ago I decided to come out as a survivor of abuse, physical and psychological, at boarding school. I’m a journalist, so I did what comes naturally: I published an article in a magazine. I went back to my famous prep school, where a police investigation had begun. Ashdown House had made the front page of the Daily Mail because Boris Johnson, Damian Lewis and the Queen’s nephew David Linley had been there.
The Times (subscription required)
Longer article on Alex Renton’s blog.
When Alex Renton came out as a victim of abuse as a boarder, he was inundated with harrowing stories from former pupils. Now, he has written an exposé of the shameful legacy of Britain’s boarding schools
As boarding schools in the UK tart themselves up and rearrange the deckchairs, they are just pricing themselves out of the domestic market. Why not just convert these schools to day schools to cater for local families. And no need to export Boarding School Syndrome around the world?
“That’s what they go to boarding school for! The VERY luxurious five-star dorms that boast sea views, gourmet food and gold taps in the loos
- UK boarding schools have been enlisting the help of cutting-edge designers
- Parents are paying up to £40,000 a year for their children’s education
- …but facilities include luxury dorms, yoga rooms and designer furniture“
But it’s still an institution…
The prep school seems to belong to an era when children were escorted by successive wet nurses and nannies for brief, infrequent inspections by their parents, before being packed off to school, and finally dispatched to the frontline of some far-flung colonial conflict, from whence they might never return.
Thus, it comes as something as a shock to discover that Headfort School, nestling just outside Kells in Co Meath, continues to board children as young as seven. After all, most right-thinking, modern parents would not willingly miss out on the formative years between seven and 12, right?
This anachronistic notion becomes an unaddressed elephant in the room for this warm, unquestioning portrait of the school. This is not, perhaps, the uncritical film we might have expected from director Neasa Ní Chianáin, whose investigation of the poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh was so meticulously calibrated.
The Irish Times
Inside Ireland’s boarding school for seven-year-olds
Film shines light on trials and joys of pupils and teachers at unique Headfort school
The Irish Times
One painful moment from my childhood remains so sharply defined in my memory that it has the power to make me cry — even now.
I am a boy, aged just eight, sitting at a window in my boarding school, scanning the drive, waiting for my father to turn up and take me on an afternoon outing.
Minutes tick by. The arranged time for our meeting passes. I wait, still hopeful, expectant, excited.