Is there such a thing as ‘Boarding School Syndrome’? No, says Rachel Johnson
A few months back, I gave a speech in Leeds to the Boarding Schools Association, in the course of which I spoke of the time I was sent to an all-boys prep school in another country days after my tenth birthday. ‘I was cold and hungry all the time: rations were so short that I would huddle under my pink candlewick bedspread, sucking on a toothpaste tube to curb hunger pangs,’ I preached to the choir. ‘I once found a live maggot wriggling in my shepherd’s pie, and showed the headmaster, who advised me to eat it.’ Despite all this, I burbled on, ‘I was happier there — shaggy, plump, and entirely the wrong sex — than I’d ever been.’
The headmasters of our finest public schools wiped away tears, my speech was reprinted (thank you Daily Telegraph), the paper even managing to find a peg for my paean to prep school: a report in the British Journal of Psychotherapy by a Jungian analyst called Professor Joy Schaverien on something worrying called ‘Boarding School Syndrome’. Basically, she argued, early boarding creates traumatised adults, paralysed by the loss of primary carers, unable to form ‘intimate relationships’ and so on. Now, steady on, I say. We are not here to moan about the emotional retardation of the privately-educated English male but rather to focus on the benefits boarding school can bring to bear on childhood, and adolescence, despite the odd outbreak of underage sandpit sex, drinking, shoplifting etc.
Unlike Prof Schaverien, who trains psychotherapists working with ex-boarders (or as she prefers to call them, ‘survivors’), I am no expert. But I think that educating children is far too important a job to be left to parents. We are simply not competent enough. And boarding schools are. They offer round-the-clock education, supervision, and entertainment, that is both cripplingly expensive and surprisingly good value. Once breaks are taken into account, for around £6 per hour, children receive bed, board, education, religion, sport, IT, laundry, and cleaning services, not to mention living as — how headmasters love to intone this in assembly — ‘part of a community’.
That is why I was sent to boarding schools (I was not a success at Bryanston and was asked to leave at 16) and that is why I have sent all my three children (at a rate of £100,000 a year out of taxed income for a time) to boarding school too — the Dragon, Ashdown House, Marlborough, and Wellington College. By and large we fee-payers, i.e. ‘parents’, have been delighted with the results and as for the beneficiaries i.e. ‘children’, they report back that boarding school is so bloody brilliant that they bat away my standing offer to send them all to Holland Park Comprehensive (hard by our house, excellent, multi-faith, multi-ethnic, and free) with scornful looks and say, ‘As if, Mum,’ when I mention it.
So boarding school syndrome is really the rage and pain people feel when they haven’t been to boarding school, or can’t get their children in to the ones they want to, or can’t afford the fees. Boarding school syndrome affects almost all the population, but not me, whatever the man who commented at the end of my Telegraph piece that my siblings and I were ‘grossly neglected by any normal standards — emotionally if not materially’ may say. Far from it, ‘Simonbss’: in sending us to Eton and Ashdown and so on, my parents were doing the best they could by us. As Niall Ferguson recently said in interview, ‘British private schools are really good…the only institutions left in Britain that are really world class.’ Imo Edwards-Jones can’t wait to send her daughter, six, to the Dragon School, as she says ‘having children in day school basically means you turn into a hybrid of cashpoint and Addison Lee.’ The Dragon is so chic and connected that for a time, whenever I turned up to watch my youngest play cricket or pick him up, people would ask me, as I wandered around dragging a cricket bag, or a trunk, ‘Oh, hello,’ in surprised voices, ‘Have you got a child here?’
I always felt like answering, ‘No, I just really enjoy taking time off work during the week spending an hour on the M40 simply to, like, hang out on the playing fields of north Oxford.’
I couldn’t believe people would ask me this until, that is, I was at sports day a couple of years ago and found myself sharing a rug and several cartons of Jeremy Clarkson’s famous cigarettes with Rebekah Brooks, who actually had, it turned out, come to the school just for the vibe. But that’s for another time, another piece.
Rachel Johnson is editor of The Lady.