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.
The New Statesman
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”…
Australian Financial Review
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.
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…
We wonder if this “research” will examine Boarding School Syndrome or the Strategic Survival Personality?
Both of these issues are well established, with Nick Duffell identifying the latter back in the 1990s and Professor Joy Schaverien identifying the former more recently. And the mental health issues of boarders and former boarders so often raised in the media?
Don’t hold your breath!
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
Mark Stibbe, a former vicar who lives in North Yorkshire, is among those to claim to have been abused by youth worker John Smyth, who ran Christian holiday camps. As other victims waive their right to anonymity, here he tells his story in full.
What is the point of these Ofsted inspections that are mere tickbox exercises for boarding? Where are the social workers assessing why each boarder has been placed in care, away from their families?
The UK is a small country and we no longer have an Empire. There is no longer any need for children to be sent away to loveless institutions (regardless of how comfortable they are).
If a teenager chooses to board at 16+ and it is exclusively their decision, then we at Boarding Concern will support their decision (subject to proper safeguards). But there is absolutely no need in 21st Century Britain to send children and young teenagers away from home, given the disastrous history of British boarding.
Everything else is just pointless PR puff.
“Delight as Wymondham College earns ‘outstanding’ inspection grade”
Eastern Daily Press
Maybe social workers are not caught up in the fetish of boarding? Maybe they do not want to send vulnerable children away from foster care and into loveless institutions, riddled with a history of abusing children?
And it has nothing to do with any fantasy of that perennial bogey “leftwing ideology”. Just practical, common sense that children are generally best raised in families than sent away to develop Boarding School Syndrome and or to become “Wounded Leaders“…
The Times (letters) (subscription)
It seems that social workers can see through the flogging of failed boarding as some sort of salvation for disadvantaged or vulnerable children.
There have been so many of these trendy almost fetishistic projects to give disadvantaged children “a taste of the boarding” in recent years. All have failed.
Boarding School Syndrome does not discriminate across social class. It affects us all. We need good day schools, with children and teenagers raised at home, not in loveless institutions. If families need support, provide it without sending the children away.
In the meantime, let’s blame the social workers for being perceptive…
“A scheme to offer free boarding school places to vulnerable children has failed because social workers thought they ‘wouldn’t fit in’ and refused to make referrals, charities say.
Many assume for ideological reasons that boarding is ‘not right’ for children from certain backgrounds, those leading the project claim.
It would have provided free places at leading private and state boarding schools for those at risk of ‘poor social and emotional outcomes’ because of family difficulties.”