This event is specifically limited to those who are ex-boarders and therapists/mental health professionals.
Boarding School is so ingrained in the British psyche as something to aspire to that it is near-impossible for the ex-boarder to talk about what it was really like without sounding ungrateful or spoilt.
Therapists on the other hand may sense that all was not well but report an impenetrable culture of silence in ex-boarding clients. Previous attendees have noticed that such clients almost never voluntarily relay their experiences - in part because it isn't what brought them into therapy in the first instance.
“I see a lot of you lot in here!” - Rehab/Addiction counsellor - response to advert.
“I LOVED Boarding School - you don’t speak for everyone” - Ex-boarder - response to advert
Approximately one in one hundred children are 'sent away' to "Britain's finest educational establishments". Yet at the most recent event one therapist stated one quarter of her current client list have attended boarding school - she specialises in young adults.
Drawing on my expertise in psycho-linguistics and having had a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment I realised no one ever asked "How was it for you?"
On the rare occasions an ex-boarder might mention their past one predictable response is "Oh which one?" as if we are being pegged into an invisible hierarchy. In reality any mention of boarding school is usually quickly stymied by a retort declaring "I wish I had gone!” Discussions then evolve into non-attendees imparting their perceptions gleaned from popular culture.
I suspected that other ex-boarders might similarly not "have the language" to adequately describe what life was like in near-permanent formal education. For many relentless shame has inhibited us from verbalising the loneliness the abuse and the violence we witnessed or experienced first hand day-in day-out.
More is known of the boys’ experiences but very little of the research/literature focuses on that of girls’ - even though in more recent years many girls grew up in former all-boys schools. Girls’ entry to the better facilities was only secured to keep the schools financially viable: thus they were immersed in heavily patriarchal systems that were clueless about girls’ needs. That said other boarding schools have remained staunchly segregated by sex - what does this do for the child in development when they do not go home to socialise with siblings/cousins and friends of the opposite sex? How do ex-boarders adjust to living and working alongside others in a society that is significantly less segregated and prejudiced?
This talk is also keen not to overlook the unique vulnerability of those children who came from overseas to be plunged into an unfamiliar culture sometimes with little familiarity with the language.
And yet what do all our alma maters have in common? In short: a lack of respect for personal boundaries and privacy; a fervent belief that they are better placed to ‘make the child’; a noticeable absence of adults and of course the jaw-droppingly beautiful buildings and gloriously green surroundings that go on for miles. Nonetheless it would be remiss of me not to mention their ongoing outcries of
“We’ve changed! It’s not like that anymore” - Every Boarding School out there.
Their response simultaneously acknowledges it was ‘less than great’ before and yet deflects any opportunity to criticise them in the present tense. Subsequently by claiming to have overhauled their provisions it negates the previous attendees' experiences. If we choose not to send our own children (at attractively discounted prices) it is assumed that “We can’t afford the fees”.
In the face of all that it can feel like heresy to say “I don’t think boarding schools are okay.” Indeed I doubt anyone would indignantly respond to my adverts if I put up an advert saying “Tomatoes are not okay!” but the words “Boarding School” provokes a stirring response and the odd bit of vitriol.
Most of us are undermined by the resolute belief (both inducted and deducted) that we individually were the problem rather than the systems we were brought up in.
"I thought I was the only one!" - Pretty much every ex-boarding attendee!
This event examines the 'quirks' and 'internalised beliefs' typical of someone who has gone to boarding school - be it the more amusing “I inhale food” and “I still count down the holiday days with increasing dread” to the desperately sad “I thought I was just a problem child” and “I don’t know where I belong - where I fit”.
By conveying the subject through structured segments the talk reveals the difficulties we might have had adapting to free-flowing [university/working] life after a rigidly command-and-controlled bell-driven existence. We can describe our overwhelming inability to relax have fun and be 'spontaneous' like we might observe in many of our organically-brought up peers.
“It’s guilt not fear! That is what stops us chilling out.” - Ex-boarder at the last event.
“That!” - chimed everyone else!
Collectively we can note the challenges of being a parent when one has no imprinting of what is 'normal' for specific age groups: When do children stop wetting the bed? When do children stop playing with toys? Why do they stop crying? We can also acknowledge the tendency for ex-boarders to be childfree. We might mention our difficulties in developing healthy trusting bonds with others as well as our profound doubts around our ability ‘to parent’ - whether or not we are responsible for children currently.
We may acknowledge an on-going sense of estrangement from life as it really is. Further discussion might lead us to see how we are inclined to compete rather than collaborate - and how that might cause us employment difficulties. We might touch on our perceptions of failure as adults for not being “prime minister” or “captains of industry” and our beliefs that “we are never doing enough” and we must “aim for perfection all of the time!”
“I thought it was just me who collected certificates!” - Ex-boarder at the last event!
We might speak for the first time about the wretched grief we felt being separated from our pets toys homes loved ones and ‘ordinary life’ time and time again. We might disclose what we had to do to suppress or avoid the subsequent emotional distresses (in ourselves and in others). We may also recognise there has been a permanent fracturing of our relationship with our parents and siblings. There may be continuing disbelief and anger that we were sent away and frustration that our demands to go home were ignored or denied.
My own accidental realisation of the deep impact of going to boarding school had (as a "Third Country Kid") also had me wondering what would happen if I brought the two communities together: the therapists and the ex-boarders.
It was my aim to give the ex-boarder the safe space to describe how it really was for them - but only at their own instigation. This isn’t a ‘sigh and cry’ event but rather offers a frank discussion of our experiences in “everyday” language (rather than having to read about the effects of boarding school in ‘clinical’ or ‘academic’ vernacular.) Secondly I thought it would be helpful to bridge the gap between the expectation we should “just get on with it” and recognising our needs as sentient human beings.
“I had to wait until my parents were dead before I could admit my time there was terrible” - Previous attendee.
“I didn’t think I would ever talk about what happened to me” - Previous attendee.
It is up to the ex-boarder how much or little they contribute - we are after all a group that has mastered the profound art of secrecy and denial. There is a tangible atmosphere of relief as our “child”hoods are deconstructed so we can see ourselves as little beings who had to navigate being raised by other people's children and a handful of strangers all the while being barracked from place to place by bells and bellowing adults.
“I feel like a weight has been lifted!” - Ex-boarding attendee - reflecting after the event.
“I can see I have never properly grown up” - Ex-boarding attendee
I thought it was also important for there to be witnesses to the opening up of a conversation - and figured it may prove to be invaluable for the mental health specialists to 'see' and ‘hear’ what actually happens in these grand stately buildings once the parents drive away. What really happened on the first night? When does the reality of their abandonment truly sink in? What happens to the child’s relationship with time? How quickly do the children learn to “mask” their fear and their feelings?
By sharing what is ‘known’ through research with the real reactions and testimonies from the ex-boarders I believe therapists are better positioned to generate the very essential conversations their clients might sorely need. To help challenge some oft-made assertions such as “the children soon settle into the swing of things” or “occasionally there are problems but most enjoy it” or the “the children are so happy playing with their friends they don’t want to come home anymore”. The typical phrases expressed by the adults who exchanged us - which provide comfort only to them and can clash horribly with the participants’ own points of view.
“An amazing experience…wonderful and insightful”- Therapist from the previous event.
“It opened my eyes about a subject not researched or talked about the pain suffering and emotional abuse that is still happening in boarding schools in plain sight”- Therapist reflecting via email on the event.
It was my aim initially to create a unique but unforgettable conversation to help a few of us gain a better understanding of what a ‘privileged upbringing’ entails. I thought it would be a one-off event. The last one sold out so now I am now endeavouring to bring them further afield as well as in the Oxfordshire region.
Feel free to contact me if you have any questions regarding your participation.
This event is specifically limited to those who are ex-boarders and therapists/mental health professionals.
To the ex-boarder: Please come along no matter what your assumptions are. Perhaps you loved your time at boarding school but you might be baffled by some aspects of everyday life and accept it’s “just how you are”. On the other hand you might be averse to revealing your innermost thoughts or re-hashing terrifying experiences including physical sexual and psychological abuse. If you wish to simply listen and absorb: you are very welcome at this event. This talk has been carefully crafted to ensure that you feel no obligation to do or say anything that will make you uncomfortable - there will be previous attendees at the event to help illustrate commonalities within the boarding school community.
Recent feedback from ex-boarders:
"I found this session really eye opening. I always thought I was different or difficult for my experiences at boarding school. I also only thought one was bad and the rest were fine. Coming to this session I was given a clear explanation as to what happens when children are sent away and the effects it can have. I felt so much less alone and less ashamed about things that had happened to me like dropping out of boarding school and suffering from severe depression.”
"Being able to talk about it with fellow boarders and also have it clearly explained helped make it a little easier to understand the way I am. My only criticism was that it was too short!"
“Those little breaks in between sessions - when we could all just casually speak about what we were realising for the first time - that was amazing!”
“It’s like you are me - you’ve just told my story. I really thought it was just me who floundered after school”
“I truly believed everyone else loved it. That it was just me who didn’t.”
“I believed that I chose to go to boarding school. I realised now that I wasn’t able to make that choice. I have been gaslit.”
The connection between adverse childhood experiences and one’s present day realities is well established. Of course the “ACEs'' questionnaire asks a series of questions as if the child was brought up in their own home - which is potentially very misleading. Answering them literally makes most ex-boarders’ childhoods seemingly quite benign.
Did a family member go to prison? No.
Client doesn’t say “But I was sent away for stints up to twelve weeks long three times a year with no ability to phone home when I was seven/thirteen.”
Did you witness one parent being violent to your other parent? No.
Client doesn’t say “The initiation ceremony involved us new boys being given a good thrashing by the prefects to see who would cry first.” “I witnessed physical violence most weeks for five years but I was a girl so it didn’t affect me.” “No the cane had been banned a few years before but the fagging was something else.”
Boarders of course spend up to forty weeks a year not in a family. Pets and grandparents died parents divorced homes were moved and nanny was no longer needed. These events usually took place when the child wasn’t present they’d simply come home to confront a new normal in some instances they went “home” to a bedroom they had never seen before!
Instead of being able to turn to their mum and/or dad for support boarders rely on “houseparents” “masters” and “matrons”. They are paid employees with standards to uphold. With up to sixty attention-deprived children to corral about the place what human wouldn’t resort to shouting and threatening to punish a lot? In truth outside of the classrooms the adults were most frequently tasked with making sure the dormitories remained out of bounds when the rules said so or switching lights off when the rules dictated the beds were in-bounds. Some were nice. Some were paedophiles. Some were nice paedophiles. Some dorm-mates were friendly others were bullies - irrespective they were people the boarder had to rub along with for twenty-four hours a day like it or not. No opportunity for reprieve to decompress to take stock or trusted adult to seek comfort from.
“This is your family now” the newcomer is informed whilst being confronted by a large group of strangers. Thrust amid children who are older and bigger than themselves. No matter how old the child is they all immediately respond by masking their fear.
“The bit that struck me was when your advert mentioned that ‘Looked-After-Children’ in England are similar in number as boarders. We frequently talk about what is in the child’s best interests. How social workers aim to keep siblings together and typically their parents fight like hell to stop them being removed.That fostered children get much better adult:child ratios. No one is thinking of the 65000 boarders being brought up in residential settings rather than private homes. It makes no sense when I think about it.”- Therapist - reflecting on why she attended the event.
In subsequent decades child psychology has also evolved and not one jot of it has ever concluded that banishing children from family life is better for their welfare. Family law judges and social workers endeavour to place the 65000 “looked after children” in private family houses rather than children’s homes. In contrast boarding siblings usually report they barely saw each other at boarding school - as life becomes about being confined to a set of peers - moved as a single unit from dorms to breakfast to church to school rooms to sports fields to the dining hall to prep then back to the dorm. That said it is not rare for siblings to go to separate boarding schools or for just one child to be sent away.
Many former boarders have no wish to revisit something so painful. After all sleeping dogs are best left to lie in their beds**. Strangely in the course of their lives most family pets have fewer ‘assigned beds’ than the average ex-boarder sleeps in during the course of their childhood. Many “Third Country Kids” need to use both their hands and their feet to count up how many bunks they called ‘theirs’ during their formative years.
**It is recommended that a dog gets a new bed every two years. Boarders of course will have at least two beds per year and will relinquish one of them every summer with the other left unused for up to forty weeks a year. Their assigned beds may have been in operation for more than many decades - and most report that their beds were disgustingly unhygienic.
“This event via its participants really brings to life the realities of what boarding school is like behind the brochures”- Therapist from a previous event.
Removed from their homes estranged from their communities and their cultures boarders are only permitted to revisit family life one night a week one weekend every three weeks or for a few weeks every three months. This pattern is repeated for up to eleven consecutive years. Currently just under two hundred seven-year-olds are scattered amidst the nearly five hundred boarding establishments. The chances are extremely high that they are the only seven-year-old in that particular school.
For many boarding school permanently fractures their bonds with siblings parents and friends. Their identity within their wider families/communities and culture can never be re-woven and remain loose and fragile - with severe implications for one’s mental health in the present day. They say it takes a village to raise a child but the ex-boarders’ villages were overpopulated by children trying their best to be adult-like with too few adults to model their behaviour upon.
It is my belief that understanding the nuances of a boarding school existence will only enhance one’s professional ability to help the ex-boarder face their current challenges. You will observe first hand how difficult it can be for the former boarders to discuss the circumstances of their “childhood” - simply because the words aren’t there the memories have been blocked or because the conditioning is too strong. This event brings together a group of ordinarily very secretive reserved strangers who increasingly react with ‘Me too!’ and “Yes that!” and other murmurings of identification. By the half-way point almost all ex-boarders are sharing incidents experiences and feelings openly - often for the very first time.
Once you can talk about what you have heard and seen you can genuinely offer the ex-boarding client some confidence they will now be seen heard and believed. By the end of the event you will have greater insight on how to use your professional expertise to ‘find the way in’: to help the ex-boarder articulate their formative years. To be the first to properly enquire “What was it like for you?” because you have witnessed other former boarding school children open up about life beyond the brochures the books the films and the social pressure to "never complain never explain".
“I greatly enjoyed the whole experience and found it very valuable. Only yesterday I was working with a client who has ‘normalised’ their experiences in the same way that another might normalise ‘domestic violence’...” - Therapist from the first event.
"This workshop has proven invaluable in my work...just the mention of the word 'trunk' has brought up so much"
Common conceptions of Boarding School.
- What's good about boarding school?
- What role has it played in history and the cultural psyche?
"They are nothing like Tom Brown's School Days"
- How boarding has school changed in subsequent decades
- Challenging the deflective "It's not like that anymore"
- What the modern day boarding school looks like.
Growing up in residential care/institutions
- What are some of the typical challenges faced by ex-boarders living in "the real world"?
- Tackling the belief "I thought I was the only one".
- The psychological impact of an abrupt "growing up" / deculturalisation from the family system.”
- Command and Control authoritarianism / Friends as parents.
- Regression and suppression in the child.
- Rationalisation / psychological bindings of parents and children.
- Tackling the euphemism "Homesickness". The trauma of abandonment repeated rejection imprisonment neglect and false hope.
Elitism and abuse
- Navigating the teenage years in a closed community with little privacy.
- Love and affection homophobia sex and paedophilia.
Esteem Confidence and the Brittle Ex-boarder
- From Surviving to Thriving. Why is it so difficult to find peace/rest?
- Where to get further help and support.
Tea coffee snacks and tissues are provided free of charge. There are no parking fees either.
Inch Community Education Centre, Edinburgh EH16 5UF, United Kingdom, Edinburgh