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Malory Towers sounded fun, but boarding schools are out of fashion now

Published 23/06/2015

Lesson learnt: the late Mary Holland was treated kindly at boarding school, but still didn’t recommend it
Lesson learnt: the late Mary Holland was treated kindly at boarding school, but still didn’t recommend it

What one generation prizes, a following generation will disparage. The notion of boarding school was quite glamorous in my schooldays. We read storybooks by Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton, and the Swiss chalet school tales by Elinor Brent-Dyer; we thought it was all frightfully exciting.

I can't remember much about the actual narrative in Upper Fourth at Malory Towers, but I can remember reading it from cover to cover and longing to be like its "madcap" heroines. The girls most admired in such genres were always "an absolute brick".

Well now. It won't be long before boarding school is considered to be a form of child abuse. To eject your child from the family circle and abandon him or her to an institution at the tender age of seven, or younger - the late journalist, Mary Holland, was sent to be a boarder at Loreto, Rathfarnham, in Dublin, at the age of three - is now thought to be a source of grave psychological damage.

This is the suggestion made by a Jungian psychologist, Joy Schaverien, who has even given the boarding school experience the tag of a "syndrome", first publishing her thesis in the British Journal of Psychotherapy in 2011. The child at boarding school, wrote Prof Schaverien, is "bereft because his or her primary attachments can no longer be relied upon". Boarding School Syndrome (BSS) later creates problems with realising "the self", which is subject to "attachment-deficit".

Those who have come through BSS are now called "survivors". Yes, I'm a survivor of BSS, although I was packed off to boarding school at the later age of 12, as a last-ditch attempt to knock me into shape.

It's obvious that the experience of boarding school in early years must have an impact on your psychology.

Mary Holland told me that "it cauterised my emotions", although, the nuns at Rathfarnham were never unkind to her and, indeed, made her a pet. In her dying days, she became fascinated by the picture of the Sacred Heart on the wall of the hospice where she lay, fretting because "he doesn't have his votive light". This was an image that she had seen as a very young child at boarding school, and it represented a source of emotional warmth. The votive light was essential.

Yet Mary's parents, I feel sure, felt they were doing their best for her. Her father was a distinguished civil servant serving in a turbulent part of the Far East, with much moving about. The stability of an Irish convent school seemed the ideal solution.

And that is a salient aspect of the boarding school experience - parents usually believed it was in the best interest of the child. My mother-in-law remembered groups of mothers seeing off their little boys, aged seven, at a railway station, tears blinding their eyes as the children were torn from their arms. "But we were assured it was best for the child." Even if the child was miserable - my sister, who was despatched to the Dominican Convent in Wicklow, wept buckets as the approach of the new term loomed - it was thought better that they should face the misery and endure it. Sis concluded that it was a cunning plan to make you appreciate the joy of life ever after - like being released from a Siberian Gulag.

Yet, there surely were some advantages to BSS. Perhaps the sense of "primary attachment", as Joy Schaverien calls it, is damaged. But some more resilient youngsters have enjoyed boarding school, and have formed lifelong friendships from schooldays. One BSS "survivor" claims that the experience makes you into an effective hypocrite, because you grasp that there is a "system" in all organisations, and you have to box clever to beat the system. I can go along with that.

But it trains you to be a considerate guest, too, because of the particular emphasis in dormitory life of always leaving your bed in a decent condition.

And the ideology of boarding school was originally quite feminist.

Miss Beale and Miss Buss, the famous Victorian spinsters who pioneered women's education, believed it made girls gutsy, independent, and robust - not "angels of domesticity" ever sheltered at home.

Did parents sometimes send children to boarding school to get them out of the way? Doubtless it happened. Did they do so for snobbish reasons? Prof Schaverien thinks so - her most recent study calls BSS "the psychological drama of the privileged child". I heard it said that boarding school "put a bit of polish" on a girl, and taught boys table manners.

I don't know any parents today who send their offspring to boarding school. Perhaps we do think it barbaric.

But what practice we now consider normal will be regarded as barbaric in the fullness of time?

Belfast Telegraph

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