The bitter emotional legacy of boarding school

An increasing number of former boarders are opening up about the lasting emotional toll the experience took on them, writes Angelina Draper

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 9:57am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 9:57am

I remember very little apart from going on the ferry with my dad and then being dropped off at the school in Wales. I just remember being sort of dropped off and imagining my dad driving and being somewhere else. I remember standing, looking and thinking, 'He's over there now.' I was very young."

There is a sombre tone in Brian D'Arcy's voice as he recalls that September afternoon in 1981 when, at the age of seven, his father accompanied him to Llanarth Court Preparatory School in Wales. His father was in the British military, and the family had been posted in 14 locations (including Hong Kong) in 12 years. Wanting to ensure continuity in their sons' education, Brian's parents sent him and his two brothers to boarding schools in Britain.

Some of [school] was great ... but it changes who you could have been
Brian D'arcy, former boarder 

Hong Kong families have never shied away from sending their children to boarding schools. For some it is a question of tradition; others seek stability for their offspring while the family moves from country to country. The reasons are many and varied, but almost all parents considering a boarding school education face similar questions and doubts.

For many ex-boarders and their families, it proved to be a wonderful and enriching experience, providing opportunities and life-long friendships. For others, such as D'Arcy, the positives aspects just don't add up.

"I have a mixed outlook. Some of it was great and I made some very good friends," he says. But he also says boarding school pupils learn to hide their emotions and that, overall, the experience "changes who you could have been". Today, D'Arcy is a 40-year old father of two boys and says he will not send them to boarding school.

One of the issues parents face is managing their children's expectations to avoid disappointment. When confronted with the prospect of going to boarding school, children are often enthusiastic because they have expectations based on literature, such as Enid Blyton's St Clare's or the Harry Potter books. While they are highly entertaining stories of adventure, they do not paint a realistic image of the life most boarding students experience.

Nick Duffell is a British psychotherapist and author of The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System. He says children have been idealising boarding school life through books and films for decades. "Today we've got Harry Potter, but there was always the industry of boarding school literature where people were having a jolly good time."

The relationship between siblings attending the same school is another problem he believes is frequently overlooked. Younger siblings are sometimes sent to keep older ones company, but parents underestimate the hierarchical social system of boarding schools, which frowns upon older children interacting with younger ones.

"I heard some heartbreaking stories," says Duffell. "A girl was unhappy so her younger sister was sent at six , but [the older sister] dropped her. So they were both unhappy."

Today, Duffell helps people dealing with psychological issues attributed to growing up in boarding schools. He co-founded an organisation called Boarding School Survivors, a group that helps ex-boarders overcome issues such as solitude, abandonment and the effects of being bullied. He says most of the people he deals with are in their 40s and 50s, who have concluded that what they thought was a terrific advantage has, in fact, made them emotionally detached.

Many boarding schools today are open to discussing the emotional distress some students suffer while away from home. Although marketing materials produced by schools abound with images of happy students, parents are advised to ask if schools are equipped to recognise potential problems and how they are addressed.

Duffell, himself a product of boarding school, believes that there is a place in society for these institutions, but only when children are in secondary school. "That's the place where children have a sense of community," he says. "If children feel supported, that they belong to a family and they are ready to go out to another world … they can deal with it and really benefit from it."

The most popular destinations for Hong Kong's boarders are Britain, Australia, the US and Canada. According to the 2012 census published by the association of British private schools - the Independent Schools Council - with a total of more than 9,500 boarders, Hong Kong and mainland Chinese students made up the largest group in the category: "overseas pupils with parents living abroad".

Sending children to live away from home for the sake of education is one of the most difficult choices a parent will ever make. D'Arcy's parents made this decision with the best intentions in mind, but he recently began questioning some of his personality traits and is now addressing issues he believes developed as a consequence of being separated from his family at a young age. "Your friends [at boarding school] are your family and I think you become detached from your [real] family," he says.

His mother, Deirdre, says none of her boys ever complained or said they were unhappy while at school, but now she has doubts. "Can a parent ever do anything right? Whenever a question comes up, and you mention anything about their childhood [they say], 'Well how would you know? You sent us off'." she says. "How much of that is genuine and how much is trying to wind mother up, I don't know."