Sunday 26 July 2015

Quotes about Boarding Schools

Still wish you could give your children "all the advantages"?

Mount adds a brief exegesis on Spartan schooling (boys were flogged at random to keep them on their toes. Needless to say it appealed enormously to the sociopaths who constructed the British boarding system.) (Catherine Nixey on Harry Mount’s Odyssey, July 2015)

While presenting the Hampton Court flower show, Monty Don said that he’d been sent to boarding school at seven “from chalk to ericaceous soil”. He was so miserable that for a long time he couldn’t bear to look at rhododendrons and azaleas. (Arthur Marshall, once a prep-school master, wrote a book about them called Whimpering in the Rhododendrons.)

After boarding school in Sussex – where she began a Resistance Movement which saw her put unhappy girls on trains home, but later redeemed herself by becoming Head Girl... (Obituary of Jill Hyem, writer of Tenko)

As long as you’re awake, you’re being watched. The first year was miserable. (Stephen Mangan)

Children in the Britain of [the 20s and 30s] did not always enjoy a happy family life. The upper classes shunted them off to boarding schools and the lower classes forced them into jobs at a young age. (

The novelist William Boyd, who started boarding there aged nine, described his nine-and-a-half years at Gordonstoun’s junior and senior schools as “a type of penal servitude”. Smaller children were at the mercy of older ones... In the 1970s there was no central heating. Windows were left open at night: in the winter, the children could wake up with snow on their blankets. (Guardian)

Boarding school is utterly brutal and hideous. It’s a secretive empire where you’re brought up without love... I find it difficult to talk about my feelings, even to identify them sometimes. (Katharine Hamnett March 2015)

Being married to an Old Etonian is a bit like living with a war veteran. Most of the time, they remain stoically silent about the things they’ve seen and done. (Jemima Lewis)

Sending kids away to boarding schools at 7: “privileged abandonment”.

Prep schools have proliferated, but private secondary schools have not. The head of a girls’ prep school in West London says some parents “almost explode” from stress. “The pressure is beyond boiling point now. Children ... will be sitting six or seven separate schools’ exams... There are so many prep-school children and so many more prep schools and no new senior schools to speak of. There aren’t enough places... We’re having to try to prepare 10-year-olds to have sophisticated exam technique as well as knowing how to answer the questions, such as writing legibly, looking at the clock and dividing up the questions, not spending too long on a question that is worth only one mark, allowing time to review what you’ve done. It’s not just about aptitude, it’s about those tricks to go with the aptitude.” Another head says: “There is very little innocence and freedom left for children... pressure on places is becoming such that parents are beside themselves with anxiety to get their children into schools.” 

Earl Spencer told the Times he hated boarding and wanted to go to a state school (January 2015). He found his first boarding school cold and unpleasant, with a “terrifying headmaster”, military-style drill and a culture in which boys whose work was not up to standard were caned on their bare buttocks... “I was sleepless for six months before going. But it was the done thing, so off I went... straight into survival mode.” Those who couldn’t do moderately well at exams or sport “had an absolutely miserable time”.

So what's the point of it all?

The Head of Cheltenham Ladies College suggests that homework and prep are Victorian and stressful and should be banned. (June 2015)

The master of Wellington, Anthony Seldon, replies: We shouldn’t be shielding girls or boys from anxiety and stress – we should be helping them to cope with it because they are essential and inevitable in life. That’s the whole point of the wellbeing agenda. A lot of people don’t understand it. It is not about avoidance, it is about learning to cope with the inevitable things that life will throw at us. (There is always some reason why we should be cruel to children.)

Currently Westminster’s all-party parliamentary group on SOCIAL MOBILITY has published several excellent papers on CHARACTER AND RESILIENCE... noncognitive “soft skills – including DEFERRED GRATIFICATION, SELF-DISCIPLINE, APPLICATION, RESILIENCE AND REFLECTIVENESS...  As John M Doris points out, “discourse of character often plays against a background of social stratification and elitism”. (Obs April 2015)

Private schools don't have a monopoly on "character". They have a monopoly on power and privilege. (Sathnam Sanghera)

Tristram Hunt ... invoked Winston Churchill in his call for good character to be instilled at school: “Churchill was bang on when he said failure is not fatal, and it is the courage to continue that counts.” (Times Dec 2014)

Anthony Seldon also mentioned grit, resilience – and morality. “Every Monday at Wellington, two prefects remind pupils about the importance of values they have chosen: this week it was respect, courage, integrity and kindness. Entrusting this role to pupils not only gives them a sense of responsibility but also carries a greater weight with their peers. We set our pupils difficult challenges inside and outside the classroom. Reflection and self-awareness, helped by regular “mindfulness” sessions, are also part of the mix.”

Things that can’t be tested: creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, curiosity, question asking, humour, endurance, reliability, enthusiasm, civic-mindedness, self-awareness, self-discipline, empathy, leadership, compassion, courage, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, resourcefulness, spontaneity, humility. (This list went the rounds. Is this “character”? Or “moral compass”? Not much use if you can’t read and don’t know anything, or don’t know how to do anything. And they spelled it “enthusiasum”.)

Private schools need a constant intake of pupils (and their fees) to survive. If they can't do better in the league tables, they have to stress intangibles like the above, and pretend they are a unique selling point.

Be honest, what is the point of it all?

As Brooks (2008) notes ‘differences in the social composition of schools and colleges and their norms and practices can have considerable impact on the social capital available to young people and the resources upon which they can draw when making their decisions about higher education’. (Coming to Terms with Being a Working-Class Academic)

It isn’t about money, or class or anything but the style of education. (Telegraph Dec 2014 lies through its teeth.)

More here.


  1. All granted.

    Now A. how much of this refers to today (rather liberally defined as starting in the 1980s)?
    B. how typical were and are these deplorable circumstances?
    C. How particular were and are they? (There are bullies and sadist teachers in state schools, too.)

  2. Sending small children away from home is cruel and abusive. Many adults are still traumatised by the experience.