Boarding school, a peculiarly British form
of abuse, has devastating impacts not only on the boarders, but on those they
grow up to dominate.
By George Monbiot, published in the
Guardian 7th November 2019
There are two stark facts about British
politics. The first is that they are controlled, to a degree unparalleled in
any other Western European nation, by a tiny, unrepresentative elite. Like
almost every aspect of public life here, government is dominated by people
educated first at private schools, then at either Oxford or Cambridge.
The second is that many of these people
possess a disastrous set of traits: dishonesty, class loyalty and an absence of
principle. The current Prime Minister exemplifies them. What drives him? What
enables such people to dominate us? We urgently need to understand a system
that has poisoned the life of this nation for over a century.
I think I understand it better than most,
because there is a strong similarity between what might have been the defining
event of Boris Johnson’s childhood and mine. Both of us endured a peculiarly
British form of abuse, that is intimately associated with the nature of power
in this country. We were sent to boarding school when we were very young.
He was slightly older than me (11, rather
than 8), but was dispatched, as so many boys were, after
a major family trauma. I didn’t think a school could be worse
than my first boarding school, Elstree,
accounts that have emerged from his – Ashdown House – during the
current independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, suggest that it achieved
this improbable feat. Throughout the period when Johnson was a pupil, the
inquiry heard, paedophilia was normalised. As the journalist Alex
Renton, another ex-pupil, records, the headmaster was a
vicious sadist, who delighted in beating as many boys as possible, and
victimised those who sought to report sexual attacks and other forms of abuse.
Johnson was at first extremely hostile to
the inquiry, describing it as money “spaffed
up a wall”. But he
later apologised to other former pupils. He has accepted
that sexual assaults took place at the school, though he says he did not
witness them. But a culture of abuse affects everybody, one way or another. In
my 30s, I met the man who had been the worst bully at my first boarding school.
He was candid and apologetic. He explained that he had been sexually abused by
teachers and senior boys, acting in concert. Tormenting younger pupils was his
way of reasserting power.
The psychotherapist Joy Schaverien lists a
set of symptoms that she calls Boarding
School Syndrome. The effects of early boarding, she
finds, are similar to being taken into care, but with the added twist that your
parents demand it. Premature separation from your family “can
cause profound developmental damage”.
The justification for early boarding is
based on a massive but common misconception. Because physical hardship in
childhood makes you physically tough, the founders of the system believed that
emotional hardship must make you emotionally tough. It does the opposite. It
causes psychological damage that only years of love and therapy can later
repair. But if there are two things that being sent to boarding school teach
you, they are that love cannot be trusted, and that you should never admit to
On my first night at boarding school, I
felt entirely alone. I was shocked, frightened and intensely homesick, but I
soon discovered that expressing these emotions, instead of bringing help and
consolation, attracted a gloating, predatory fascination.
The older boys, being vulnerable
themselves, knew exactly where to find your weaknesses. There was one night of
grace, and thereafter the bullying was relentless, by day and night. It was
devastating. There was no pastoral care at all. The staff watched with
indifference as the lives of the small children entrusted to them fell apart.
They believed we should sink or swim. (The same philosophy applied to swimming,
by the way: non-swimmers were thrown into the deep end of an unheated pool in
I was cut off from everything I knew and
loved. Most importantly, I cut myself off from my feelings. When expressions of
emotion are dangerous, and when you are constantly told by parents and teachers
that this terrible thing is being done for your own good, you quickly learn to
hide your true feelings, even from yourself. In other words, you learn the
deepest form of dishonesty. This duplicity becomes a habit of mind: if every
day you lie to yourself, lying to other people becomes second nature.
You develop a shell, a character whose
principal purpose is to project an appearance of confidence and strength, while
inside is all fear and flight and anger. The shell might take the form of
steely reserve, expansive charm, bumbling eccentricity, or a combination of all
three. But underneath it, you are desperately seeking assurance. The easiest
means of achieving it is to imagine that you can dominate your feelings by
dominating other people. Repressed people oppress people.
In adulthood you are faced with a stark
choice: to remain the person this system sought to create, justifying and
reproducing its cruelties, or to spend much of your life painfully unlearning
what it taught you, and learning to be honest again: to experience your own
emotions without denial, to rediscover love and trust. In other words, you must
either question almost nothing, or question almost everything.
Though only small numbers of people went through this system, it afflicts the entire nation. Many powerful politicians are drawn from this damaged caste: David Cameron, for example, was seven when he was sent to boarding school. We will not build a kinder, more inclusive country until we understand its peculiar cruelties.