Thursday, 11 February 2010

Sent From Home At 8 Years Old: How Boarding Schools Screw Up Britain

It has always struck me as odd that local authorities and children's homes battle so hard to find adoptive parents or at least foster parents for the children in their care, 'in care' as the phrase goes and yet wealthy parents are permitted to send their children away from home to boarding schools which pretty much resemble children's homes of the past.  It is argued that children need solid families to permit them to grow up as balanced individuals and less likely to fall into crime, mental health and a whole range of problems that impinge on UK society.  However, the rules for the privileged seem to be very different and they are allowed to put their children into a context which severely damages them and in fact makes them socially disfunctional.  The huge difference is that a child from a children's home will never become an MP whereas a child sent to a boarding school quite possibly will end up in the government or a leading civil servant or military commander or lawyer or clergy person.  Why do we think it is fine to cut one set of people off from their families, and in some cases actually see it as a better method and yet for another set of people it is seen as something we should be trying to end and to find families that will take these children and give them a 'proper' family? Of course, one argument is that it is about money.  By definition, a child sent to a boarding school comes from a wealthy family so even if they have no talent or are lazy they will succeed and will get a house and a good job whereas a child from a children's home or local authority care has no-one to provide these advantages so are more likely to end up homeless or facing mental health issues.

The thing that triggered off this posting was the Channel 4 programme 'Cutting Edge' which today had an episode 'Leaving Home at 8' about 8 year old girls sent from their parents to a boarding school.  For those unfamiliar with the UK system, boarding schools are those at which a child stays all year except during school vacations.  They sleep, eat and live at the school.  Some of these boarding schools are the elite 'public' schools, but there are other less prestigious institutions.  They all do, however, charge high fees which mean a small slice of the population can attend.  However, as adults this small slice is over represented among the elites in British public life and business.  In total 67,000 children in the UK attend boarding schools; 59,000 children are in local authority care.  Of children in care 53% leave school with no qualifications; 45% end up with a mental health disorder (compared to 10% of the general population) and of those people in custody 30% have been in care, though children in care make up only 0.5% of all children.  In contrast 70% of judges, 68% of barristers, 55% of partners in law firms, 54% of journalists and 54% of doctors went to fee paying independent schools, of which boarding schools make up 13% of the total private school pupil population.

The programme was harrowing even though it featured very privileged people, the girls themselves were distraught at being separated from their parents and many of the parents were too.  This is unsurprising.  At 8 a child can do many things on their own but they are far from being an independent person.  Whilst boarding schools probably lack the bullying and in fact torture of pupils by others whether their peers or older, that happened in the past, certainly it is an unhealthy environment into which children should be put, and this is recognised by the fact that, as noted above, local authorities and charities always seek to house children in their care with adoptive parents as much as they can.

The damage that boarding schools do to children was highlighted in a 2008 investigation by MPs:  Of course, not only are there the initial problems created by taking a child from their home and putting them in an instituion, anyone who has worked in the UK especially in London and towns like Oxford where adults who went to boarding school are more numerous, sees the problems that such an education lays for life.  The people who have been through the boarding school system have been doing something like military service for their childhood and of course this makes them tough but it also makes them very callous and uncaring about others.  I have seen no evidence in adults who attended boarding school, of the team spirit that such schools argue they promote.  When you have had no privacy, no space of your own, no space to be yourself and no security for the things you hold dear, of course you will always snatch whatever you can from others and give no thought to anyone's needs bar your own.

I will take a real life case: a woman I met some years ago in Oxford.  Her name was Tiffany 'Tiffy' Foster who though from Suffolk had attended a boarding school in Oxfordshire.  Her family numbered senior military officers and clergymen in its ranks.  I worked with her for nine months and found immediately that she viewed anyone she met who had not been to such a school with disdain which was ironic as she wanted to become a school teacher in a comprehensive school presumably to lord it over the pupils and fellow staff.  She argued that we who had not attended a boarding school were all too weak to deal with life. I was particularly angered when she complained that neither a single (by determined choice) mother who had an incredibly intelligent  daughter able to produce poetry that scanned at the age of eight stood no chance in life before she was not faced with the toughness of a boarding school.  She made no apology for the advantages of wealth and connections she had gained that made her life so easy.  However, this did not stop her taking other people's things in the office without apology.  I guess that the privileged do not feel rules apply to them or really that anyone else's concerns matter.  Another offensive remark she made was to ask what all the fuss was about the First World War (she intended to teach history).  I asked her what was the lowest rank of any of her family who had fought in that war and she said colonel; none of her relatives died in the war.  The highest rank any of my ancestors attained was sergeant-major and that was because he had served in the Anglo-Boer War in which he was decorated.  He was demoted twice for striking officers who were younger and less experienced than him but casualties always meant re-promotion.  He survived the war but died soon after from the affects of gas poisoning.  I have come a long way in social standing from that ancestor of mine (he drove a tram in peacetime) but I realised that it brought minimally closer to where Tiffany saw herself as standing.  To make such a remark about the war that took the lives of millions and mutilated many others was sickening.  Other boarding school families were not spared in the way the Fosters were, yet her own narrow horizons and self-obsession, promoted by her schooling barred her from seeing that.

This is one example, I have encountered many others in my career, but fortunately now I am out in the provinces, far fewer than I once did.  The trouble is that the higher echelons of our society are filled with these people and unfortunately no-one seems to really ask whether people who have been through such a harsh, uncaring school system (despite the efforts of the teachers to make it welcoming, the whole set up of divorce from their parents cannot be counter-balanced effectively) are really mentally fit to have so much power.  Of course, the generation above them lift them up without even thinking about it and they have an effective propaganda machine working for them.  When training as a teacher in a comprehensive school in Oxfordshire I was stunned to find that the headmaster of that school which took a wide range of ordinary pupils had a peculiar deference for neighbouring boarding schools.  Did he have no faith in the system he was part of?  Did he simply do it because it was a job?  Did he look on his own pupils with disdain and only see his role as fulfilling some compelled duty?  He might have been an isolated case, but the way that he privileged teachers who had had a boarding school background, was rather unsettling.  Even though he had not been part of that system he was incredibly deferential towards it much to the dismay to those who had come up through the same type of school that he was overseeing.  I do not have to say anything about the Harry Potter stories and how they show that boarding school pupils are 'magic' and special, to indicate that boarding schools get lots of free propaganda, most importantly to educate us, the bulk of the population, how reverential we should be to their pupils and alumni.

The sense that boarding schools are 'special' producing exceptional people, rather, than in fact, screwed up ones with out-of-date knowledge, is terribly prevalent in UK society.  Even the review in 'The Guardian' of this 'Cutting Edge' programme ended saying '... the kindness of the teachers shows that the boarding school model, somewhat [!] anachronistic in the 21st century, can still work.'  Work at what?  Producing another whole generation of people who will get power as a gift, almost a right, and yet have been screwed up by a system that makes it impossible for them to engage properly with the large majority of people they will encounter in everyday life.  However much they dislike it, they will have to mix with the rest of us.

Anachronistic is the word.  The boarding school system harks back to a period long before even the Victorian era.  I would argue that it owes much to ancient Sparta and the sense that children need to be becoming warriors from birth and that the weak should be exposed, marginalised from 'proper' society.  If we witnessed families, say in China, sending their young children, to be taught in 'education camps' there would be dismay and anger and yet that is what we see in the UK.  There would certainly concern about the future of China and its place in the world if these children were being groomed to run the country.  Yet, that is precisely what happens in the UK.  Boarding schools are bad for the UK because they screw up the people who are going to be our leaders and make them unsuited for the posititons of power they are going into.  Of course, I would ban them immediately.  In the meantime, however, I hope we can shift opinions of those people, you and me, who suffer at the hands of the selfish, arrogant, greedy former boarding school pupils and rather see them as 'special' in a way that we should pay deference to, but see them as people with 'special needs', people effectively mistreated by uncaring parents and in need of particular help in living in modern UK society.

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