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Pushing the Wall: Politics, Psychotherapy and Boarding School

Holding 3D BookAuthor Nick Duffell on how our elite education system shapes the way we are ruled.

It was a strangely mild November evening, and the light was just fading. I was getting the feel of one of the lecture theatres in Old College, a proud 18th century quadrangle of neo-classical stone buildings in the heart of old Edinburgh, musing that in this very same room David Hume or Adam Smith may have set their audience’s minds alight. In my latest book, Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion – a Psychohistory, I had been very hard on the Enlightenment. I highlighted and condemned the kind of thinking that fostered an anti-emotional hyper-rationalism that had allowed the British Empire to exploit half the world by promoting dissociation, compartmentalisation and objectification.

Adam Smith had grown on me, however: much misinterpreted, he would probably have hated the gross materialism of our day. I was here on invitation from the university to debate “This house would ban boarding for the under 16s.” Smith condemned boarding in 1759, and I had my own share of misinterpretation.

I have been speaking to the English media about boarding since 1990 and they invariably seem to be looking for a fight: “So you are saying that all boarders are scarred for life?” No, I try to gently explain: I’m saying that every boarding child has to survive its privileged abandonment, has no option but to adapt itself to the new life away from home.

This must be accomplished very rapidly: dissociating from feelings, beginning with homesickness and rage at abandonment, giving up on trusting others and constructing an exterior shell resembling the independent, confident, ‘well-spoken’ product advertised in the schools’ glossy brochures to their customers, the parents. When journalists say they intend to visit a boarding school I reply it may prove a waste of time: the children there will already have their ‘happy masks’ on. It usually takes 20 or 30 years till the ex-boarder’s behaviour in family life starts to raise questions.

I try to make it easier with what I call The Cameron Test. Can we argue that David Cameron, who started boarding at 7 (as did a good percentage of his cabinet), is a damaged individual? Well, he is the top man in a country that sees itself as the top country, one of the youngest ever to get the job, with a good salary and a family life. He is a Winner: no question. But that he had to survive boarding as a child is not in doubt for me. For a quarter of a century I have been pioneering a psychological understanding of how boarding children have to survive institutionalisation without parents or love and how this affects them later on as adults, and in turn our society. Once you see it, Cameron, like Blair before him and Boris (perhaps after him) and the rest, can be spotted acting with what I call a boarding school survivor’s classic behaviours.

Such behaviours can include a seamless duplicity, an unshakeable faith in one’s own ego, a tendency to bully when feeling cornered, a barely concealed contempt for being told what is what by ‘other ranks,’ including women and foreigners. Such negative traits are embedded in the Westminster scene, just as its polarised politics are built into the Victorian mock-Gothic House of Commons, whose benches are placed two swords’ width apart. Psychologically, they are rooted in the unconscious sense of entitlement that compensates for the boarder’s forced amputation of feeling and empathy. This affects the UK profoundly.

I imagine that the Scottish independence movement was as much driven by a wish for self-determination away from a politics controlled by public school bullying as it was by nationalism. The establishment of a genuine social democracy is a real possibility in Scotland, but Britain’s top-down structure and elitist education system that supports it – and looks very weird from a European perspective – means it cannot happen without deep structural changes. Europeans don’t buy into Cameron’s bullying of them, in any way: they say that you have to belong to something before you can lead it. But ex-boarders haven’t had enough belonging at home so they mistrust the very notion.

My experience of the Scottish media so far is different, and the opening out of politics here is infectious. On 19th November Edinburgh’s Sally Fraser of Boarding School Action and I conclusively won the debate. Next, Scottish Newsnight picked it up and interviewed me sympathetically, without all the ironic aggression and defensiveness I have come to expect in England. BBC Scotland were as welcoming as were the staff in the wonderfully rounded Holyrood parliamentary chamber when we visited, seconds after Nicola Sturgeon’s first Question Time. Next, in The Sunday Herald, Vicky Allan’s The Board Generation considered whether boarding is a national or a local issue:

“Some may wonder why we should bother about a tiny fraction of the population to whom ­privilege bequeathed boarding school syndrome. When about 16,000 Scottish children are in residential care, why trouble over the trauma of a few posh kids? One good reason is that these are the people who rule and influence; who shape our culture, politics and economics. For me, there is another reason: the desire to understand my other half. I look at what, at eight years old, he was gifted as privilege. I see my own sons coming up to the same age and I am glad they, and I, will never have to experience that.”

I call on the Scottish Education minister to read this article and realise that Scotland already has sufficient independence in key areas to make changes. Our idea is to convert all boarding schools into boarding sixth-form colleges and make them available to those who do not have the £30,000 per year that Loretto costs. There is a good model in Denmark that works on these lines called Efterskole, in which teenagers learn to cooperate and study citizenship!

It’s great news that the First Minister is now proposing tackling the tax status of the traditional land-owning classes. I ask her now to prioritise an examination the role of the public schools whose scandalous status – where private enterprises masquerade as public charities – contravenes the mounting psychological evidence that they cannot justifiably be for the common good. The issue of psychological neglect has to be taken as seriously as we are finally beginning to take sexual abuse. Boarding schools are 24/7 institutions where abuse is very hard to prevent. I have heard that there may be a further scandal about to burst in one of Scotland’s leading public schools. My understanding is that, because of a greater hesitancy about what is called ‘circumstantial evidence,’ Scottish law makes retrospective abuse prosecutions much more difficult than in England, and a governmental enquiry into covers-ups much less likely.

So there’s plenty more for the Scottish Government to do, but is there room for one more Englishman up there?

Comments (53)

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  1. Elaine Black says:

    A great read. Some years ago I remember an article by a psychiatrist/anthropologist on English public schools and the Empire. You probably know it. The article explained how these unique institutions were designed to produce young men who had been separated from family ties at a young age. This, and the harsh regimes encountered in these institutions, readied them for often challenging and lonely environments. It was rather sad.

    I was more recently in ‘Royal’ Gloucestershire and reflecting on the kind of people familiar in the Westminster village and sometimes to be found in Edinburgh too. Supremely confident, often kind, funny, interesting and irreverent, yet with that indefinable sense of detachment. I have only belatedly realised the nature of such ‘detached confidence.’ It is not a learned ability to lead. Leadership is a different quality. It is a sense of being born to rule and being somewhat separate from those who have not.

    Yours is a very welcome voice on the invisible structures that influence our governance. While in Scotland challenging the mores of old Labour are equally necessary, the points that you have raised are by no means side issues. Addressing the impact of public schools on society and wider land reform are key to achieving a modern democracy. I believe that it is the Scottish Government’s success in these hidden areas (many of which are, ironically, possible within our limited devolution) which will, over time, lead not only to greater democracy in the North of England, Wales and Northern Ireland but Scottish Independence. Without a shot (or a lion, perhaps) being killed.

  2. Coinneach says:

    How interesting!
    It makes so much sense, you just have to wonder why no one really thought of this before.
    It’d be interesting to look at the effect private schooling has on children; I suspect many of the same factors will be present, if in smaller doses.

  3. Darien says:

    ” private enterprises masquerade as public charities”

    This description also seems to fit Scotland’s ‘elite’ universities.

  4. “…is there room for one more Englishman up there?”

    For one who brings such insights: very definitely yes. Welcome.

    Our elected Government seeks positive change. Our establishment, who are both enabled and crippled by these issues, does not. Work to do.

    Are you aware of this? http://www.nordichorizons.org/finnish-lessons.html

  5. topherdawson says:

    Some of these boys (I met them as a student) had a very hard shiny shell, difficult to see under. But some were very thin skinned, and damaged. They at least knew they were missing something; the dangerous ones were the ones who thought they were fine. Many of them are our leaders in Westminster.

    I’ve always thought that sending your children to boarding school is a way of telling them you don’t love them. It’s a terrible thing to do.

  6. tonyroz says:

    interesting, i think this is where they(the landed elite) inherit their appetite for killing wild animals for personal pleasure. A lack of empathy and inability to recognise and respect maternal nurture. It is definitely the wrong group to be sourcing leaders from, too much hidden self preservation and survival.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      As a former convenor of the Scottish Landowners Federation (now Scottish Land & Estates) once put it to me after a couple of pints: “They were buggered and beaten at public school and now they want to do it back with a shotgun.” It’s not the stags I worry about. They don’t wear condoms and so as Aldo Leopold said, if the deer has reason to fear the wolf, the mountain has reason to fear the deer (because of overgrazing etc). It’s the tenants and others in communities that get hit by the fallout of this kind of psychopathology. And Elaine, my guess would be that the person whose work you read about empire was almost certainly Nick Duffell himself – his previous book, “The Making of Them” – is all about how the administrators and fighters of the Empire were made. This is what we’re in the process of decolonising from and it’s a difficult process because of the need to try and go heavy on the issues but gentle on the people for the very reasons topherdawson describes.

      1. Elaine Black says:

        Thank you Alastair, I have always wanted to read it again and will certainly have a look.

  7. I appreciate that this comment may seem pedantic, but in the pursuit of accuracy only, it is worth pointing out that neither David Hume (Edinburgh University would not employ him), nor Adam Smith (wrong university altogether) taught in the Robert Adam ‘Old College’: indeed David Hume never taught in Edinburgh, although he was an Edinburgh student from around the age of twelve, but not in these buildings. In any case, Hume was long dead (1711-76) when the Old College was built around 1790 (replacing the older eh, ‘Old College’!). As for Adam Smith he was Professor of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow, and earlier a student in Glasgow, and later Balliol, Oxford. I have often thought the statue of Smith in the Edinburgh High Street is simply in the wrong city.

    1. MBC says:

      Smith did retire to the Canongate though. (I don’t mean to be pedantic either). He also lectured in Edinburgh on Belles Lettres after he left Oxford and before he got the Glasgow job. This was a private class not part of the official Faculty of Edinburgh University and classes were open to the paying public. They were highly acclaimed. I think it may have used college rooms. But he was essentially freelance.

      1. Thank you; I take the point, which is an interesting and informative comment on Adam Smith’s interest in Rhetoric and the great tradition of public lectures and educational societies, connected with the university: however the “college rooms” would not have been the Robert Adam ‘Old College’, but the previous Old College. May I add another aside? I believe that neither Adam Smith nor David Hume could correctly be described as “rationalists”. I suspect the connection is formed through a rather loose assumption about the term ‘Enlightenment’ and the nature of the ‘scientific revolution’. I shall not debate such a large issue at length here; but in the case of Hume, I offer Hume’s oft quoted opinion that I hope neatly serves the purpose: “reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions”.

  8. Darien says:

    One of Scotland’s numerous problems today is it has too many academics, and certainly far too many civil/public servants, many of whom at the higher levels come from the type of backgrounds we have been discussing………. but not nearly enough entrepreneurs. Any successful economy will ultimately depend on the latter. I expect Adam Smith might agree.

  9. Nick Duffell says:

    Thanks John. Remember I was only reporting my musing, not facts , about those stalwarts of the Scottish Enlightenment!

    1. A very gracious reply! I thought I was perhaps being too pedantic – and not using sufficient imagination. Imagination always trumps pedantry. David Hume would approve of that thought.

  10. Fay Kennedy. says:

    I have thought for a long time the terrible toll of corporal punishment doled out across all classes particularly to the male and how it has damaged our society for centuries in the British education system. It will take generations to repair the damage but what a great opportunity for those who have the insight and willingness to change this culture. Scotland can do it differently I’m sure.

  11. Darien says:

    John/Nick – you twa soond awfie like twa boarders yirsels!

  12. This is a very welcome article, and I found your ‘The Making of Them’ hugely helpful.

    However, my sense is that this runs far deeper than just the elite and the boarding schools whose experience and its consequences you convey so well.

    Alice Miller, in her chapter on Adolph Hitler’s childhood (in her book ‘For Your Own Good: The roots of violence in child rearing’) points out that damaged leaders – whether of the severely beaten and shamed Adolph variety, or the people you describe – only get away with persuading society to elect them because society as a whole is similarly damaged.

    In other words: what you describe, and in fact what Elaine describes so superbly in the first response above, is not confined to the elite. It is how we are all brought up.

    Sue Gerhardt’s writing on ‘Why Love Matters: how affection shapes a baby’s brain’, and Colwyn Trevarthen and many others writing, show the depth to which babies are – from at least the moment of birth – able to initiate and receive emotional communication, and the communication we receive shapes the neural pathways of our brains and our ability to empathise or not with others.

    In our society most infants experience being abandoned emotionally. We don’t respond to infants crying because we think that will help them stand on ‘their own two feet’. We make them sleep in separate rooms to ourselves. We send them off to school very early. This is not any of our individual faults as parents – the way our society is structured we parent in ones or twos, and we work very hard, and we really need to sleep ourselves or get time with our partners, and we really need them off to childcare or school so we can work. BUT cross culturally this has been a really unusual way of socialising infants. AND forcing our education system on other societies as the great way to get ahead is having a huge impact on their ability to collectively care for their kids in a far more responsive way.

    Barry Hewlett makes a fascinating comparison between infants experience in egalitarian societies and in Europe-North America. For example, he shows how a comforting response to one year old infants crying is provided (within 10 seconds) between 75 and 90% of the time in egalitarian societies, while in Holland and the US, they deliberately don’t respond 44 – 46% of the time during the first 3 months. As Sue Gerhardt’s writing shows: this has profound impacts on our ability to empathise with others.

    Of course in such egalitarian societies there are a whole range of kith and kin present to provide the care and contact, and the whole pressure of demanding work and demanding childcare is not on only one or two parents. So the question is perhaps not only how do we ensure the end of boarding schools for the under-16s, but how do we change the structures of society in such a way that all of us can receive (and so be able to give) the empathy and understanding we all need to flourish?

    Radical independence requires real empathy.

    Radical independence not of the brittle shiny variety Nick describes, nor the bitter resentful variety Orwell refers to, but real independence which is born out of knowing we care and knowing that others care as much as we do. For me, THAT has been the most extraordinary aspect of this ongoing independence movement. Real independence is possible when you know you are not alone.

    1. simonpartridge846 says:

      Excellent points Justin. The problem goes deeper and wider than boarding schools, and Alice Miller’s “poisonous pedagogy” covers a lot of the ground. We also need to be aware of the early rupture caused by the institution of the “nanny” in upper class culture – boarding school is often the second whammy!

      Nick mentions Jean Liedloff in his path-breaking “The Making of Them”, but I have only just got round to reading her book “The Continuum Concept”. Drawing on her extensive experience of South American tribal culture she provides an inspiring antidote to our many mistaken notions of child-rearing, particularly the necessity of “in-arms” experience. John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, also has many important observations in his book of collected essays “A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory” [he lies buried on his beloved island of Skye]. Bowlby would certainly agree that there is no sense of authentic independence without an experience of secure attachment as an infant. Indeed it is hardly possible to envisage a society of well and mature people where empathy and the need for attachment are not widespread, a sort of commonsense. So much of our culture across our islands still runs counter to these essential needs. Our future must lie in humane, federated interdependence, where the so-called home counties and their dissociated, public-schooled elite don’t dominate.

  13. floc says:

    Interesting, I’ve read a few articles recently about this and they all seem to be written about male boarders only. Is this because we still only see males as leaders? Or is it that the % of females who attend boarding school is very small? Or is it that we’re talking about a wider chunk of history where females were mostly prevented from education or taking leading roles? There are quite a few currently working in leading roles and as MPs. “a barely concealed contempt for being told what is what by ‘other ranks,’ including women and foreigners” – so what about female boarders? I hope that this doesn’t come across as argumentative, I’d be interested to know what behaviours they exhibit. Thanks

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      floc – see reply to Judy below.

    2. Nick Duffell says:

      Of course it is a problem for girls bring brought up in institutions developed on masculine and military lines – it is conducive to misogyny in both genders and catastrophic for the development of empowered and differentiated femininity. You may like to dialogue with some of the therapist who have trained to work with people who have identified themselves as boarding school survivors.

      This is not about land-ownership: it is about how we raise children and socialize a nation. And then how we fail to recognize or act on the fact that we are led by Wounded Leaders. The landowning classes are used to not building good attachments even before school due to the subbing out of parenting to servants, and also never having any privacy in their staffed homes. The public schools were designed to offer the same ‘advantages’ that the children of the gentry had – hence the name ‘public’ which is of course so misleading to foreigners.

  14. junius45 says:

    Smith also went to Cambridge for a while but claimed he learned nothing there.
    Efterskole was very big in Glasgow, I just lived for Efterskole, 🙂 Watching Borgen was a delight after dismal “Big Hoose” dramatics from the Beeb, plus the discovery that Danish & Glesga have much in common.

  15. yerkitbreeks says:

    While Nicola Sturgeon speaks of the glass ceiling concerning women, I as a male, have experienced it in presuming to move, as an Aberdeenshire lad, into the chairmanship of SE English medical committees.

    The intellectual authority simply isn’t enough as nothing seems to dent the tribalism of the public school ( and often, Oxbridge ) set. Although they can be at one another’s throats they will gang up on anyone seen as an outsider.

    This isn’t reserved for toffs though, as I’ve experienced it from locals after moving into the Borders. The difference is, as noted by the author, that this privileged group govern us.

  16. Judy Olsen says:

    Girls are sent to boarding school too, it’s just that fewer of them get to run things.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      In reply to you and “floc” above, Judy, about women boarders, see the paper written jointly with a former student, Chriss Bull, about women landowners and boarding school psychology in the journal, Oral History:


      1. Judy Olsen says:

        Thanks. I don’t have a land-owning connection, but ‘commercialisation of feeling’ certainly resonates. I can remember one Parents’ Night, when the parents walked past the windows, but it was forbidden to turn and look. You might not see them for months, but you weren’t even allowed a smile. Absolutely brutal, yet the parents went along with it.

      2. Alastair McIntosh says:

        Judy, another of my female students (this was in the Centre for Human Ecology when in the now-defunct Dept of Geography & Sociology at Strathclyde Uni) did her thesis work on the kind of emotional cauterisation you describe. Specifically, it was on young folks who are expected to inherit the big estate and the burden of abnormality that places on their shoulders. She was going to write it up for publication – it was a distinction level piece of work – but I think it just touched too many buttons and I never felt it fitting to try and push the matter. That’s part of the trouble. People just go along with a range of dynamics that are “absolutely brutal” as you say – but they shut up because of discomfort and social pressure. The patterns then replicate and where these are powerful people, they play out into the rest of society. That’s the distinction between elite an non-elite patterns of dysfunctionality. The former, the pathologies of wealth, have leverage.

      3. In reply to Alastair’s thoughtful suggestion that “the distinction between elite an non-elite patterns of dysfunctionality” is that “The former, the pathologies of wealth, have leverage”.

        I’m not so sure. The point I was making above, Alastair, is that the elites patterns of dysfunctionality only has leverage because the rest of us are brought up in a similar pattern.

        If not, we would look at the attempt to bully us in the same way European leaders look at Cameron’s attempt to bully them. A look that says “You poor, poor man. You’ve never really grown up, and can’t even have a reasonable discussion. Come back when you’ve learnt how to treat others reasonably”.

    2. simonpartridge846 says:

      My sister and I were both sent to weekly boarding at 6 and full boarding at 7 [in my case] and just 8 [in hers] – our mother as a “daughter of the Raj” had been sent off at 6 and it was the “done thing”. This was in the mid-1950s – we have only recently been able to share our wounds; our prep schools were literally a couple of miles apart but we never saw each other during term time! It has taken me a long time to recognise that in some ways my sister suffered more at her school than I did at mine. She used to sleep walk [a symptom of what?] and was tied to her bed!

      I agree Judy that girls’ experience of boarding school tends to be under-reported [possibly because proportionately fewer board and tend to board at a somewhat later age]. However, another good account is by the counsellor Mary Stack [formerly of Edinburgh, now living in south west England] in her piece “‘The Making of Her'”: My boarding school experience” in Attachment Journal, 2, November 2008: 321-327.

      I would be happy to send a scan on request.


  17. Chris Malcolm says:

    Fascinating discussion! So nice to see that Liedloff & Bowlby are starting to shape investigative social thinking rather than being instantly recognisable as beyond the pale of institutional academic rationality. I must go back & remind myself of Reich’s “The Mass Psychology of Fascism”. I remember thinking 50 years ago that were sociology a well founded rational science (I thought 50 years ago that it deserved not one word of such a description), then that book would do well as one of the foundational works. Be interesting to remind myself why I thought that just in case it wasn’t a silly idea. If psychology, sociology, and economics are starting to knit together in Scotland’s post-referendum politics then this is a rather interesting & exciting renaissance!

  18. Morag says:

    I wonder, what about the children from the Highlands and Islands who have had to become weekly boarders (at state schools) simply because of the remoteness of their homes from the nearest secondary school? Is this still going on? I can’t see how it isn’t, given the geography.

    My own father was sent to boarding school in Crieff because his parents felt it was preferable to spending all week lodging with some family in Rothesay and only getting home at weekends. Millport had no secondary school age children during the week until local government reorganisation in the 1970s allowed them to go to Largs Academy – a school that had always been within daily reach, but forbidden to them because of the Buteshire county boundary running up the Tan. So, no youth clubs or organisations either. There weren’t even boarding facilities in Rothesay, the children had to board with local families. Or maybe this was better?

    Again in the 1970s I remember spending a summer camp in a boarding-school house in Dornoch, a facility for children from the western highlands who couldn’t physically travel the distances daily. Unless there has been a lot of secondary school building since then (which there hasn’t been as far as I know), these facilities must still be in use. Are we damaging the children of families in remote areas in the same way as the rich and privileged?

    And how much of this is down to the romanticisation of the “boarding school story”, from Kipling through Billy Bunter and Jennings and the Chalet School (which my mother said she was addicted to in the 1930s) to Enid Blyton?

    1. topherdawson says:

      As far as I know the hostel at Golspie for west Sutherland children is now closed with the opening of Kinlochbervie High School in 1995. Dingwall hostels closed when Ullapool High School and Gairloch HS were upgraded around the same time. Scoraig pupils attend Ullapool High School and live in the hostel built in UHS grounds but they are only 30 miles from home. Applecross pupils used to stay in the Plockton hostel but now travel daily; the hostel is now in use as the Traditional Music School.

      Some small island pupils board in Portree and I think Mallaig but on the whole West coast kids get to stay at home which is a very good thing. I did hear some hair raising stories about life in the hostels in past years, but at least they were all in it together and their parents had not voluntarily taken the decision to send them, indeed many moved away from the area rather than do so.

    2. Crubagan says:

      It was certainly the case in Argyll, with Oban and Dunoon as the destinations for secondary school, but gone now.

      There are actually plans to introduce boarding to parts of the Shetland islands:


    3. Morag says:

      That’s all really interesting, I hadn’t realised it had changed so much. I suppose road improvements would make a lot of difference.

      I remember once when I was quite little, this might have been in the late 1950s or early 1960s, my mother telling me about a farming family with two little girls (near Amulree, I think) where the children had to walk two miles across the hill to catch the school bus to primary school! The older girl started to do it alone from age five, joined by her sister a couple of years later.

      I still wonder about the truth of this, if I picked the story up right, but that’s what I remember.

  19. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Some of the hostel kids found it very tough, but it was a necessity, not a choice. For a really positive view on child-centred education in the Hebrides see the programme just out on BBC Alba about the work of Dr Finlay Macleod of Shawbost. Here you see a radical teacher being followed up 40 years on with his former pupils, who are now the backbone of the community. It’s available for another 4 weeks with English subtitles (from the Gaelic) at:


    1. Morag says:

      Thanks, I’ll watch it.

  20. Judy Olsen says:

    As Alastair and Justin say these patterns do play out into wider society. The *work* of Gina Ford is one example, ‘Super Nanny’ (no accident that she’s a Nanny) is another. A crying baby should not be comforted, a bad child must be isolated on the Naughty Step. And ‘successful’ state schools are supposed to model themselves as closely as possible on minor public schools, especially in the matter of uniforms. Google ‘Ryde Academy’ to see just how ridiculous (and harmful) that can get.

  21. Alastair McIntosh says:

    I think, Justin, that it depends on the society and sub cultures that you’re brought up in. On the Isle of Lewis of the 1960s and early 70s that I was brought up in the pattern was very different from mainstream society. I woke up this morning thinking and half dreaming about this, because one of the things that most struck me about the BBC Alba hour long documentary about “Dr Finlay” of Shawbost was two of his women ex pupils, now in their 50s, talking together and agreeing how in the era they grew up “we were all the same”. It was a powerfully egalitarian society – a little less so in Stornoway where there was a small bourgeoisie, but amongst the ordinary people and in the villages it was so true – we were all the same – and that remains so when we see each other (at least of that generation) to this day. You then hear those people talking on the documentary – Murdo Macleod the brilliant Guardian photographer is one of them – and you’ll see how aware they were of walking between 2 different values systems – and how the old style of education, where Gaelic culture was literally beaten out of them – was alien to their core values.

    In this sense elite behaviour did not have indigenous leverage. It was forced. I also mean “leverage” and meant it mainly in terms of social power and specifically, the landed power of wealth.

    Incidentally, just this summer I spent several hours with a tradition bearer of my own age on one of the southern Hebridean isles and he was saying what a shock to them all it was to be taken out of their homes and sent to hostels (Morag’s question, below), where they were brutally regimented. He had no hesitation in using the word “abuse” though not in its sexual sense. Also, I should maybe express an interest in this article in that Nick Duffell is an old friend as as one of Bella’s new circle of editors, it was me who commissioned and edited his piece – thus my particular interest and why I’ve contributed so heavily to the theme. The Dr Finlay programme shows why all of this matters so much. It shows how beautiful education can be when it is done naturally in community – the programme suggests that what he did 40 years ago is akin to today’s Curriculum for Excellence. I am interested not just in what has gone wrong in education in the past, but more to the point, in how beautifully it is possible for it to go right, and how that speaks to the emergent values of a new Scotland.

    1. Lovely response Alastair

      Looking for what is beautiful in our experience of education is as important as looking for what is damaging.

      On that, one of my boys spent the best part of a year at one of the west coast schools where they had to board in the hostel (only coming back to the island and family every fortnight) but though it was tough for him (being from Portobello, to which we speedily returned for this very reason) it was often a liberation for other island kids, or at least there were/ are a whole range of responses, as they had the chance to further develop friendships with kids from their and neighbouring islands, kids they already knew. I think it is this aspect and the fact that its a necessity not a choice, and that for most parents they don’t want their kids to have to go through this and the kids know it, that makes it very different.

      In June I returned to my own secondary/ high school for the first time since I left decades ago. I had (thought I’d) hated the school, and only returned because a history teacher, my first teacher at the school, was finally retiring and I went because I remembered he had been so inspiring. Hundreds of us returned and he gave an extraordinary final history lesson that explored what he had really been teaching beneath the history (good and evil, sex and longing, etc) and the goodness of him and many other teachers and kids flowed back into my memory.

      Each situation is more complex than being either just awful or wonderful. Being able to be fully aware of both aspects, each potential in each moment, is maybe what education should really be about.

  22. Bothy Basher says:

    What a good article and what enhancing responses!

    I never experienced this institutionalised cruelty which distorts society today. Yet in an independent Scotland have we the will to outlaw such child abuse?

    That’s the proof of the pudding.

    And yes Nick, there’s room for a thousand like you. Welcome.

  23. Svenja says:

    “the dangerous ones were the ones who thought they were fine” – Yes, for me the main point to take home is not what is or isn’t difficult or even damaging for the children. Some folk have had an overdose of traumatic experiences in life, either cumulative or at too early an age, and might be damaged beyond repair in some respects – and society’s role then becomes an act of damage control. But most people’s upbringing is a mixed bag of a range of helpful and difficult experiences, and the important part is that enough foundations are laid for the child (and later, adult) to become equipped with the capacity to work through the shadow stuff. (Small doses of) shit can be an excellent fertiliser for empathy with others! If not, the shadow stuff plays out traumatic within families, and by extension toxic within society (even among kids, bullying etc) and lethal on the global world stage.

    I’m not meaning to advocate a kind of “toughen up” philosophy. The precise problem with elitist education is that it often stifles the kinds of emotional literacy that can help a person, throughout life, to deal with other challenges. Are these elitist kids damaged beyond repair? I somehow doubt it (lots of privilege for them too), more – in agreement with Nick – that these kids mostly make rubbish leaders (with the odd exception – Tony Benn, may he rest in peace). And I somehow doubt that boarding in itself is necessarily excessively damaging – eg for kids in remote areas who experience lots of emotional warmth at home, or in my own experience at a (German) boarding school which had strong humanist and ecological values, encouraging kids to become rounded persons rather than competitive leaders.

    Interesting debate re: egalitarian highland culture and whether it allows those in power leverage, or whether power can only be forced upon more egalitarian cultures. The big No vote up there could be a symptom of “never trust those who want more power” (not Westminster either, but at least they’re the known hazard). I wonder if there’s some learning in there for Yes, which in large parts of the campaign was pretty egalitarian, but it maybe didn’t come across that way in some attitudes towards No voters.

  24. simonpartridge846 says:

    Very interesting to have your German viewpoint on British boarding schools, Svenja. Would love to know more about boarding schools in Germany; are they privately- or state-financed, what age do pupils go, are they influential in German society etc?

    However, as someone from the south east English “Home Counties” [yes, that was originally “home” from overseas Empire] who was sent to board at 6 in the 1950s I can assure you it did me a lot of harm. That was no doubt compounded by being handed over to a nanny at probably only a few days old [that was the custom of my social class]. I think it is difficult to say in the UK that “most people’s upbringing is a mixed bag of a range of helpful and difficult experiences”: it depends very much on the timeline and one’s class location [strangely from a psychological perspective the extremes tend to coincide, sometimes in unholy alliance, but the underclass lack power]. The overclass people, with the odd exception like Benn, make “rubbish leaders” because as Nick and others [including myself, see my paper “Boarding School Syndrome: Disguised Attachment-deficit and Dissociation Reinforced by Institutional Neglect and Abuse”, Attachment 7 (2): 202-213] have pointed up, they have to “dissociate” in order to survive the gross emotional neglect of early boarding – that is a serious psychological disorder. While some may still be functionally competent in the limited sphere of manipulating power [though there are real casualties], they clearly lack empathy for the plight of the many less well off [e.g. bedroom tax] and are adept at control through “divide and rule” [the use and abuse of immigrants and so-called scroungers].

    What is toxic in the British situation – which may not be so in more social democratic Germany – is the intimate link between class location and private fee-paying education [about 7% of pupils, though less in Scotland], of which boarding is only some 14% yet provides half the Cabinet. Through this peculiar pedagogy we have power delivered into the hands of a psycholgically damaged minuscule minority who by their sense of entitlement and “old-boys” [mostly] connections manage to inflict their narrow vision on the rest of us.

    Thankfully, the people of Scotland seem to have had enough of this sadism and are articulating a more inclusive and caring politics, whether they voted Yes or No. I expect real alternatives to what has been called the “Berlin Wall” in education to emerge here first. Please abolish early boarding and ban the tax-breaks of the already over-resourced private sector [class sizes are half those in the state sector]. You can show us all the way to a fair, life-enhancing and integrated form of education. Perhaps we can then put the disabling neuroses of class behind us.

  25. Craig P says:

    Of course it is also possible to be psychologically damaged despite having attended a normal school.

    I am intrigued by the proposal to ban primary school age boarding. To be thrust out of the family home and institutionalised at the age of six or seven does seem obviously, excessively and perversely cruel.

  26. Sveinn Jah says:

    Apologies simonpartridge846 if I came across as diminishing your and others’ experience – I very much support the motion to ban early boarding for the reasons you mentioned. My point was rather that experiences of boarding vary between and within countries, and in some situations trauma isn’t necessarily the dominant experience. At my private boarding school, while elitism and landed power were rife, there was a variety of other reasons why kids boarded – dysfunctional families, being orphaned, or some more benign reasons which meant that boarding was the least difficult option for those kids (who received state funding to attend the school). Psychopathologies (bulimia, anorexia etc) were found across the spectrum, among the “posh kids” and the “welfare kids”. But there was also a huge amount of appreciation towards the school, with my old acquaintances still saying that they had a mostly positive experience, stayed in touch with former teachers etc. Similarly, in the Scottish context, while I don’t know a huge amount about it, I suspect boarding in remote locations is probably not necessarily damaging either. I’m not an expert of the German boarding system – there are some more alternative but private schools such as mine, some very posh (and oppressive?) schools, and some state-funded schools. Overall, boarding perhaps isn’t as much of a political institution as in the UK. That said, while Germany’s class system isn’t as entrenched as it is here, it’s quite an unequal society too, and inequalities seem to be on the rise in mose places.

  27. simonpartridge846 says:

    I much appreciate your clarification, Sveinn, and your support for a ban on early boarding. It would seem that boarding in Germany is organised on different lines from that in Britain and Ireland. Here the ethos is overwhelmingly “posh” and there is very little state-funded boarding [there are a few state boarding schools, mostly age 11+, but even here pupils have to pay for their accommodation].

    Emotional neglect and abuse of children is no respecter of class origins and one would expect the attendant psychopathologies to occur among both groups. A caring boarding school like yours [above a certain age] may be one solution for such problems, but it is hard not to imagine that a good foster family and a good local school would not be a better [and cheaper] one.

    You’re right to point out “inequalities seem to be on the rise in most places”, but there is plenty of evidence that this is directly linked to the institution of private education, which provides extra resources and the right sort of “connections”. The economically privileged can buy better education for their children and ensure that the elite is further advantaged: it is a virtuous circle for them [barring psycho-emoptional damage] and a vicious circle for the rest [see David Kynaston’s “What should we do with private schools?” recently in the Guardian – http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/05/-sp-social-mobility-decline-elitist-education-david-kynaston ]. Unless non-fee-paying schools are put on a much more equal footing with the fee-paying private sector ones [which have unjustified tax-breaks in the UK – most are not genuine charities] then it is hard to see how we can break out of the vicious circle and its “wounded leader” consequences. Although it’s possible that some of the new technologies of information and knowledge exchange via the internet and social media may come to our aid.

  28. Sveinn Jah says:

    Private education might be a contributing factor to the rise of inequalities, but neoliberalism, an economy which makes widespread unemployment viable, a crumbling welfare state etc might be even stronger factors here.

    By the way, I find your suggestion that many of us kids should have gone to a foster family instead of what we had pretty offensive. Different situations require different solutions, and it’s best not to suggest any particular solutions if you don’t know anything about the situations in the first place.

  29. simonpartridge846 says:

    The David Kynaston piece is lengthy and closely argued. It was partly based on a piece he wrote earlier in the year with his son which showed that less than 1% of pupils in private schools are in receipt of a full bursary. Michael Gove [then Minister for Education] said they had “demonstrated beyond challenge, that the wonderfully liberating education offered by our great public schools is overwhelmingly the preserve of the wealthy”. How wonderfully liberating is arguable, but I would agree that if unfettered capitalism [neo-liberalism] is part of the problem generating greater inequality, then the extensive private education system in the UK – almost exclusively the preserve of the wealthy – entrenches the position of the minority who promote such a socio-economic system.

    I am sorry if I caused offence, but I don’t think my comment was prescriptive in your case, Sveinn. I was just suggesting that it was possible to imagine that a warm stable family and a good local day school might be just as an effective answer for troubled kids – and I’m happy to include myself in that scenario.

  30. ruagaire says:

    Without choice from age 10, I boarded through to 17. Adolescence only happens once and I would have chosen to be near my mother as my daughter is to me until the age that she is ready and sourced to move into the wider world.

  31. Chris Vlasto says:

    I have come rather late to this fascinating and highly pertinant discussion. I was sent away to prep school at seven, my older brother went at five and both my parents were in boarding schools when they were four years old (both precipitated by the death of their fathers but also not unusual at that time in their strata of society.) Deep down for many years I believed we were sent away because we were impossible children and were being punished.There was no choice it was the way things were.
    Having found my way into a career as aa therapist I ran a series of workshops in the 90s, similar to Nick’s, up here in Scotland, for “boarding school survivors”. As a result of that work I was asked to give a talk to a conference entitled “Towards better boarding” at Milton Abbey in 1998. Most of the audience were head teachers of a similar age to myself, many of whom were themselves “survivors”, several came up to me afterwards and said they had been moved to tears. They had never talked about their experiences before.
    I had never been back into that environment since leaving school in 1969. I found much had changed – many schools now being co-educational and actively encouraging younger pupils to bring teddies and cuddly toys as transitional objects to help them settle in. This contrasted with a workshop member who brought with him the one precious object he took to school – a tiny cast iron teddy that he could fit in his pocket where noone could see it.Yes much has changed, the emotional well being of boarders appeared to be on the agenda, however I suspect the inner sense of entitlement so many of you talk about has not changed.
    I have lived in Scotland since 1980, largely attracted by the sense of space and the more questioning political climate. The independence debate at the end of last year was invigorating, I suspect largely down to a brief glimpse of the possibility of a different sort of politics not deadened and stultified by the economic and cultural elitism that seems to predominate in Westminster. The elitism exists here put it doesn’t dominate the political debate. Living in rural Perthshire and working in Fife it was obvious how the less well off areas of Fife were a sea of blue Yesses while the large farms of Perthshire in the last couple of weeks suddenly bloomed with purple Nos.
    It is good to know that these issues ar still high on the agenda north of the border. However the roots of inequality run very, very deep and are tenaciously defended.

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