‘Are we going to be head of rugby?’ Two mothers self-consciously banter as they stand by their BMWs in the forecourt of a small stately home – the school where their young sons are boarding for the first time. Trunks have been carried in, housemasters have made brisk reassuring comments; the ‘settling in period’ has begun. There are no tears.

The scene comes from a 40 Minutes BBC documentary, made 20 years ago, called The Making of Them, in which young boarders were discreetly filmed over their first few weeks at prep school.1 It is available on YouTube, but be careful – it will make you weep, or angry, or both.

I borrowed the title for my first book,2 which described the effects of being sent away to school at a young age and my work as a psychotherapist with adult ex-boarders, whom I named ‘boarding school survivors’. For 25 years I have tracked how children adapt to institutionalisation by dissociating from their feelings and developing a defensively-organised character, the ‘strategic survival personality’, which I argue severely limits them emotionally and psychologically in later life.

An ex-boarder myself, and later a teacher in a boarding school, I remember how on my first day, 300 miles from home, my mother slipped away unnoticed to avoid her own difficulties with saying goodbye. Of course she, like so many other mothers, did not want to ‘upset me’, and she was doing her best. Crying was not done in those days – not by mother or child. Tears of loneliness were never permissible in front of the other children – you might get away with it in the two places where there was some privacy – under the sheets or in the toilets – only at my school the toilets were doorless, to guard against other equally prohibited activities.

I don’t think it ‘made’ me, but it has made me difficult to live with.

The assumption that social success will result from this privileged abandonment is rarely questioned. If their parents can afford it, children are sent away to follow a well-trodden path straight from boarding school through Oxbridge to high office in institutions like the judiciary, the Army, the City and, especially, government. David Cameron was only seven when he was sent away to board at Heatherdown preparatory school, set in 30 rolling Berkshire acres. The boarding school industry is worth billions and has a massive lobby behind it. In other countries the state contributes a sum for every child in private education. Not in Britain. Thus our uniquely exclusive boarding system props up the class structure, partly through the establishment’s unquestioned durability, but chiefly by its promise of upward social mobility, reframed as ‘parental choice’. Consequently, we remain a divided top-down society, not a social democracy.

There is, I believe, a direct link between the problems caused by the boarding school experience and our domination, at the highest levels in our society, by men who do not provide good leadership because of unacknowledged psychodynamics. In my latest book I call them ‘wounded leaders’.3

Boarding is so embedded in British life that we don’t really notice how odd it is. Even the therapy profession has been largely resistant to naming the problem, as I have argued previously in this journal.4 You have to look from outside the box, and then you can’t stop seeing it. Our European neighbours are generally appalled that we have children only to send them away for others to raise.

Without the right guidance, the wish to do the best for their children can confuse parents. As if the needs of eight year olds were still unknown, the Boarding Schools Association, at their 2014 conference, declared, ‘Boarding schools develop true grit!’ Our society wants to produce winners, but the message that such hothousing carries a high cost is unwelcome, and is confused still further by the challenge of drawing any distinction between abuse and neglect, and between damage and survival.

Here is where our Prime Minister is a prime example. Can he – a man at the top of the nation – be called damaged? He and his colleagues Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Andrew Mitchell, Oliver Letwin and others, certainly tick all the boxes for being survivors. As socially privileged children, they were forced into a deal they did not choose: trading an ordinary, home and family-based childhood for the hothousing of entitlement. All boarding children have to survive this.

Reinventing the self

‘Survival’s about keeping your head down,’ Solomon Northup is told in the film Twelve Years a Slave, a powerful portrayal of the rank dissociation and objectification that was the psychological engine of our colonial empire, staffed by young men straight out of public school. Outraged, Solomon replies: ‘Days ago I was with my family; now you tell me all is lost, to tell no one who I am, that’s the way to survive. Well I don’t want to survive, I want to live.’ But Solomon soon experiences the imperative to survive; he must create a new persona that involves betraying himself and his values.

This is precisely the boarder’s dilemma. Prematurely separated from home and family, boarding children must speedily reinvent themselves as self-reliant pseudo-adults. Hence the false self that is apparent when we develop the psychological eyes to notice it. The child survives boarding by attaching to this self instead of to a parent, but the ex-boarder often retains a permanent unconscious anxiety, reinforced by strong internal double binds, and rarely develops emotional intelligence. ‘They told you they were doing it because they loved you, but it left you bereft of love,’ one survivor told me.

Ex-boarder politicians have not had empathy on their school curriculum. Having forsworn all forms of vulnerability since they were seven or eight, they can’t imagine that humans might depend on one another. How can they then understand the vulnerable, or provide anything but government by and for the winners – a culture in which the losers end up despising themselves? Cameron’s behaviour (like that of Tony Blair before him) is typical of a boarding school complier survival type who successfully deceives himself (or herself) that everything is fine. This self-deception may include a seamless duplicity, an unshakeable faith in his ego, a tendency to bully when he feels threatened, a barely concealed contempt for women who try to tell him what is what, and ditto for foreigners.

Furthermore, he has to believe his own self-invention, which is the most dangerous, for it allows him to do anything without conscience. Thus Tony Blair was able to march our standing army (mostly staffed by those who can find no real place in society) off to the Iraq war and ignore the millions marching against it. He can ‘robustly’ maintain his position today, when his critics’ direst predictions are coming to fruition.

Boarding school survivors tend to operate strategically. Tied to rigid timetables in rule-bound institutions, they are ever alert to staying out of trouble. Crucially, they must not look unhappy, childish or foolish – in any way vulnerable – or they’ll be bullied by their peers. So they dissociate from all these qualities, project them out onto others, and develop duplicitous personalities that are constantly on the run. That is why ex-boarders make the best spies – a theme that novelist John Le Carré has developed to such brilliant effect. In adulthood they stick to the same tactics. Whenever they sense the threat of being made to look foolish, they strike. We see this in former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell’s contentious bicycle ride down Downing Street, and in Cameron’s response to MP Angela Eagle, less than a year into his new job, in the now infamous session of Prime Minister’s Questions when he patronisingly told her to ‘Calm down, dear!’, as if she was upset and not him. The Opposition loved it, of course, howling ‘Flashman!’ (the bully from the archetypal boarding school book Tom Brown’s School Days). But they never take on the cause of these leadership defects.

The problem is that boarders, wrenched from their families into a peer group of other equally frightened and abandoned children, are forced to grow up so fast that they never really have a childhood, or come home again. In adulthood they can talk the talk confidently; they can get into Oxbridge and get top jobs. But the young boy inside them stays frozen in time. He is anxious and strategic, eternally on the lookout to stay out of trouble. He tries to manage by himself, surviving when relating would be more appropriate. He may bully his way out whenever there’s a risk of his vulnerability being exposed. This is why Cameron over-reacts when caught out (in the Angela Eagle incident, it was over hospital waiting time figures). He is ready to sacrifice anyone to avoid trouble. Many wives of ex-boarders will know this strategic move. If it is not addressed, boarding school survival creates huge difficulties with intimacy, and many trans-generational problems.

The outward character of ex-boarders may appear competent but it is brittle and run from the inside by the poorly attached little boy. The results of the 2010 election shocked me, because I knew we would have more of the kind of politics that sideline women and are dominated by the boys in the men who run things. Having learned to survive, not to relate, Cameron is incapable of making proper relationships in Europe, unlike John Major (Rutlish grammar school, now a comprehensive); he can talk of leading Europe, but not of belonging to it. It’s hardly surprising: wrenched away from home as a child, never having had enough belonging, the ex-boarder mistrusts it. It took me 20 years to join a tennis club.

Never admit to error

The problems consequent with boarding’s attachment-deficit institutionalisation are vehemently denied by its proponents and hidden by the social privilege it carries. This privilege is double-edged: it creates shame that prevents sufferers from acknowledging their problems; in return, they get an assumption of entitlement. The latter accounts for why Boris is so supremely confident: he needs neither surname nor adult haircut. He trusts his buffoonery to distract the public from what former Daily Telegraph proprietor Conrad Black called ‘a sly fox disguised as a teddy bear’.5 This sense of entitlement cannot easily be given up: it is compensation for all those years without love, touch and family, for the stress within the personality and the lack of emotional, relational and sexual maturity.

In Wounded Leaders I trace its history to what I call the ‘entitlement illusion’, a long tradition on these islands with roots in the days of slavery and the terror of the French Revolution. It reached its zenith in the late 1890s, the ‘Age of Privilege’, in which some of our current leaders would not seem out of place. Notable for its unparalleled gap between rich and poor, it culminated in folly. This year, we mark the century since the men at the top, cut off by their elite boarding school experience from the emotions needed to make good decisions and practise empathy, led us into the pointless carnage of World War I. Take, for example, Sir Douglas Haig (Clifton College, Brasenose Oxford and the Bullingdon Club), Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, who presided over the bloodbaths of both the Somme and Passchendaele. A devout cavalryman, he declared the machine gun and the tank ‘over-rated’.

Today, says commentator Toby Young, Eton and Oxford have transformed themselves into ‘chimaeratocracies’.6 Cameron’s electoral campaign image of the caring, ordinary bloke shows how ex-boarder politicians, trained in dissociation and duplicity, can magically turn privilege into meritocracy, and believe their own myth. We might have forgiven Blair had he admitted he was wrong on Iraq, but the politics of belief built on strategic survival cannot deconstruct the illusion or admit any form of vulnerability.

This elitist education is, in fact, not a good preparation for modern day leadership. My book presents evidence from several neuroscience experts that supports what attachment theory has already told us. Sue Gerhardt has convincingly summarised the evidence that, in the crucial early formative years, the brain thrives in the medium of secure attachments and empathic relationships, and its normal development is hindered without them.7 Antonio Damasio demonstrates that, without access to emotions, whether through brain lesion, dissociation or lack of emotional intelligence, good decision-making is impossible.8 Stephen Porges’ social engagement system shows how victims of long-term trauma and those exposed in childhood to extreme emotional neglect are unable to recognise vagus nerve facial signals. This means they can’t then distinguish whether an approach is intimate or hostile; to be on the safe side, they tend to interpret it as the latter.9 Ian McGilchrist’s work on the brain shows how excessive focus on rationality over-stimulates the left hemisphere, preventing access to the bigger picture and engendering blinkered views developed in isolation from their context and without empathy.10 The science seems to underpin political commentator Will Hutton’s view that the decisions of the Tory Party ‘have, over the centuries, been almost continuously wrong’.11

Psychotherapy and politics

Britain needs to change. A new parliament building would help. Exchanging the adversarial architecture of Victorian Gothic – so like a public school chapel – for a floor plan in the round might encourage constructive discussion and discourage polarisation and bullying. A real socio-political transformation, however, will require a wholesale review of our anachronistic education system. We cannot patch up boarding through Ofsted inspections. School-based counselling is damage limitation and an impossible job. Young children need to be at home, not to have better boarding. If boarding were restricted to the over-16s, the stock of buildings and staff could be redeployed to offer a more democratic and psychological healthy model. In Denmark, for example, mixed-gender Efterskole offer boarding for teenagers where they learn grown-up civic responsibility and are prepared for the greater independence of higher education.12

The world is entering a new phase of interdisciplinary collaboration; the neuroscience revolution and its mutual embrace with the psychotherapy professions has been a game-changer. I believe that psychology, history, literature, philosophy and politics might similarly combine to provide leverage against the pervasive forces of the banal, to help us get a bigger picture about the world and to learn from the mistakes of the past. Psychotherapy and politics have been kept apart for too long, which is one reason I wrote Wounded Leaders. Lynne Layton of the Massachusetts Institute for Psychoanalysis suggests: ‘There is a strong pull to collude… part of what is considered good practice is to separate the psychic from the social; those who broach these topics are often criticized for importing politics into the sacred realm of the clinic’.13

In 2011, when Therapy Today published my first boarding school article as the cover story, the references to named politicians were omitted.4 The British Journal of Psychiatry was even stricter in 2012, in the correspondence that followed Joy Schaverien’s paper on ex-boarder psychotherapy.14 That this article can name names suggests that new, creative attitudes are emerging.

As practitioners, we have a responsibility to understand the symptomatology of ex-boarders and to recognise the syndrome, even when it is not the presenting issue. This is why my colleagues and I continue to offer specialised training (a manual will be published by Routledge next year15). But we are also citizens, and should therefore speak out about the normalised harm caused by boarding and how it infects our national life. Several senior clinicians (Susie Orbach, Joy Schaverien and Andrew Samuels, to name three), along with writer AL Kennedy and ecologist and ex-boarder George Monbiot, were among the signatories to a letter to The Observer earlier this year that called for an end to early boarding.16 ‘Children may learn to function competently, but at the cost of dissociation from their feelings of abandonment, even if there is no outright abuse,’ they wrote. ‘Attachment theory plus the work of clinicians over the last two decades and now the findings of neuroscience leave no doubt about the psycho-emotional consequences of depriving children of touch, warmth and a “secure base”… If boarding once played a role in preparing men for the rigours and cruelties of an imperial age, our present interdependent world calls for a different, more complex and caring set of values.’

We continue to need this kind of pressure to assist our fellow citizens out of denial. Without it, we will remain the most class-ridden of the developed nations, unlikely to produce a world-class statesperson like Angela Merkel or Barack Obama, as the changing values of the global political scene leave us far behind, stuck in the late 19th century.

© Nick Duffell, 2014.

Nick Duffell is a psychotherapy trainer, psychohistorian and author of Wounded Leaders: British elitism and the entitlement illusion – a psychohistory (2014), and The Making of Them: the British attitude to children and the boarding school system (2000). He co-authored Sex, Love and the Dangers of Intimacy and co-founded the Centre for Gender Psychology in 1996. Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege: a guide to therapeutic work with boarding school survivors, written with Thurstine Bassett, is to be published by Routledge next year. 


1. http://youtu.be/2uRr77vju8U
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5. BBC 2. Boris Johnson: the irresistible rise. First broadcast 25 March, 2013.
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11. Hutton W. David Cameron’s act of crass stupidity on Europe. The Observer, 11 December, 2011.
12. http://www.efterskole.dk/
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14. Schaverien J. Boarding school syndrome: broken attachments – a hidden trauma. British Journal of Psychiatry 2011; 27(2): 138–155.
15. Basset T, Duffell N. Trauma, abandonment and privilege: a guide to therapeutic work with boarding school survivors. Hove: Routledge (forthcoming).
16. de Zulueta F, Schaverien J, Orbach S et al. Boarding schools: pupils’ suffering has been ignored for too long. Letter to the editor. Observer, 11 May, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2014/may/10/the-big-issue-boarding-schools-abuse