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Backlash against UK boarding schools

Tonhis moment Announcer Justin Webb said it was “probably” the worst moment of his boarding school career when his chemistry teacher drew a pistol, announced it was loaded and waved it in the air. Winston Churchill would remember the caning until the student “bleeds profusely” and screamed loudly. George Orwell was beaten so badly that his headmaster broke his riding whip on him, “bringing me to tears”.

British boarding schools are weird, it’s not news. For centuries, for a handsome fee, they provided the British upper class with a perfect combination of architectural beauty and physical discomfort; with neoclassical hallways and cold showers; with Latin lashes and common scourges . They produce students who are equally eccentric, sophisticated and innocent at once, combining precocious talent with a presentation that never leaves the classroom. It’s an intoxicating beer, and the UK is intoxicated: 20 of the 57 British prime ministers have graduated from Eton College. As one of them, Boris Johnson, might say: “My God!”

Boarding schools haven’t been in trouble yet. Their student numbers are relatively stable – around 70,000, partly due to the large number of boarders from abroad. But their charms may become easier to resist. Elite private schools’ pathways to the most coveted colleges are less secure than they used to be. In 2014, 99 students were admitted to Oxbridge by Eton; in the 2021-22 academic year, it managed just 47. By comparison, Brampton Manor Academy, a public school in London, has 54.

This raises tough questions about value for money. In Johnson’s day, annual fees at Eton were just £861 (around £10,000 today). Today, its “half-yearly” tuition fee is £15,432 (as Eton’s website explains, this means three times a year; £46,296 per year obviously doesn’t include the comprehension of fractions). To that end, Eatonians enjoy a swimming pool; two houses of worship; three “theatre spaces”; a composer-in-residence; a filmmaker-in-residence; a pet pianist; Public schools promote diversity, and it’s important to “get people talking about uncomfortable things.” For example, those fees.

Perhaps the most profound threat to boarding schools is more fundamental. This is the idea that sending a child as young as seven or eight out of their home is not a privilege but cruelty; even if this education is done well – no abuse or bullying; top eleven for cricket; tea scones; cheers everywhere — it is still very wrong. Older teens may find the whole experience less brutal, and maybe even a relief. But as psychologist John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, said, “I wouldn’t send a dog to boarding school at seven.” Richard Beard, the author who attacked private schools in his book “Sad Little Men,” echoed this theme. The architectural beauty and bells and whistles of boarding schools are like the label on a can of dog food “not for the dog; it’s for the person who buys it,” he said.

Send your offspring to boarding school, agrees Alex Renton, a writer and activist who was abused at his prep school, “You’re putting your kids in care. You’re just doing it There’s a price to pay.” A growing number of psychologists believe that luxury care leads to undesirable outcomes. Coined by psychotherapist Joy Schaverien in 2011, the term “boarding school syndrome” covers a spectrum of symptoms including depression, emotional distress and serially broken relationships. A group called “Boarding School Survivors” provides therapeutic help to former boarders. Since its inception in 1990, it has treated hundreds of people.

Their defenders argue that boarding schools have changed. Gavin Horgan, principal of Millfield School and chairman of the Boarding Schools Association, said it was “blunt” to extrapolate from what children experienced 40 years ago. “It’s a completely different environment.” Where once students were sent away for a few months, many young boarders are now on a weekly basis; they can video call home every day. Attitudes are different, too: Today boarding school teachers are not talking about stiff upper lips, but protection and mental health first responders. Also, boarding school syndrome is hypothetical, not proven by hard data.

But critics say that’s partly because no one bothered to gather the information. Snobbery and a national obsession with old stone means it’s still a struggle to see the people in the Palladian mansions as dispossessed. Mr Webb felt that he and the other boarders had no privileges. “If anything, it’s just the opposite … they should be at home, having tea with mum and dad.” He said it would be “a crime” to send him away.

The cruelty of the system is deliberate, not accidental. Believing that the Battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing field of Eton, Victorian Britons set out to create new fields and new Etons (Em Forster writes, each a “garish copy of ”) to mass-produce the upper-middle class. Freed from the “softening” influence of their mothers, the children wear uniform clothes, sleep in uniform beds, and live in uniform dormitories, where they speak a uniform vocabulary (“Topping! Pax! Sneak!”) with a more pronounced accent. Increasingly uniform: the pronunciation received by the truncated tone (echo) was considered part of this school-led, upper-class self-standardization.

The empire may have been happy with the outcome, but its descendants were not so happy. Churchill, Orwell, CS Lewis – they all wrote viciously brilliant accounts of their schools. One of the best arguments in favor of boarding schools is an attack on the quality of their prose; one of the best arguments against it is its content. As John Le Carré said: “The British are known to be crazy. But when it comes to mutilating their privileged young people, they are criminally crazy.”

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