Boarding schools – abuse and redress

A series of stories on abuse in boarding schools and other child care institutions

I started looking at this in 2014 after writing a personal account for the Observer of my own preparatory boarding school (that means for children aged 7 to 13), Ashdown House. Several allegations have been made about Ashdown, detailing abuse, psychological and physical, by staff there over two decades. (Sussex police are still investigating…) Subsequently the many stories I was sent by other ex-boarders and their families gave rise to a series of investigative pieces for the paper, including one into rapes at Gordonstoun. All are listed below, with links, along with some other writing on the subject and references.

boarding-school-syndrome-009January 2016: I am working on a book on the wider history of the private school system for Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

But I am continuing to investigate allegations I’m sent, if those who tell me their stories wish that.

June 2015: Review for the Guardian of psychoanalyst Joy Schaverien’s fascinating book Boarding School Syndrome.

12 April 2015: “Rape and cover up at Gordonstoun”. My investigation for the Observer Magazine into historic abuse at the Scottish public school and its junior school – read it here. News summary here

This dreadful story is also about the flaws in Scottish law that let down victims of violence committed in private. Scotland, shamefully, has one of the worst rates of reporting-to-conviction in sexual and domestic violence – something its lawyers are prepared to tolerate on the grounds that they believe the country’s ancient laws ensure there are no miscarriages of justice. However, the pressure for change in the bizarre Scottish evidential rules is growing.

January 2016: The police have interviewed further suspects since this was published, and the prosecution of another teacher is imminent.

15 February 2015: For the Observer, Stoke Mandeville and mandatory reporting: how the lack of a law compelling the reporting of suspicions of child abuse to a third party will let managers who connived at Jimmy Savile’s abuses get off scot free.

5 October 2014: My story in the Observer news pages on the push for “mandatory reporting” which would help whistleblowers who uncover abuse in institutions, and make it a crime to cover it up. This “crucial” measure for tidying up the malfunctioning child protection system could become part of the current Serious Crimes Bill – but currently government wants to kick the proposal into the long grass.

21 July 2014: a story for the Observer magazine on the experiences of those who have loved and cared for survivors of abuse, and the immense collateral damage early trauma can do. Much of the material came from those of you, including many wives, sisters and mothers, who have emailed me their stories. There’s 600 or more comments on the article.

4 May 2014:  a story for the Observer of my experiences at Ashdown House preparatory school in the 1970s and the current surge of criminal and civil cases concerning similar schools then and more recently. The comments are fascinating; some of over 2,000 communications I’ve had since the article. Many of those are heart-rending; tales of lives warped and soured by early misery. Very few people have defended the system.



Children as young as six are still sent to boarding school in Britain; there are about 4000 kids under 11 boarding in the private sector, and an unknown number in the state boarding system. Many private schools do not meet government guidelines on the basic protections, including vetting of teachers, that should be in place to safeguard the children they care for.

Along with the bulk of the child psychiatry profession, I believe sending a pre-teen away from home carries an unacceptably high risk of long-term damage, however kind and caring the institution they’re entrusted to.

Several campaigns exist to try and stop this bizarre practice. (Children as young as six are still going.) It is often done quite casually, for  notions of status, which can of course still be bought in Britain, or mere convenience.  Boarding School Action tracks the campaigns’ progress on this blog. There is also an important one to change regulation that encourages cronyism and cover-ups in all institutions looking after children – see @MandateNow on Twitter (new website here) and this BBC story.

In June 2014, the government announced plans to create a crime of emotional abuse or neglect of children – the “Cinderella law”. If the legislation goes through before the election, it will at last bring Britain into line with the rest of the world. It will be interesting to see the scope of it: will it cover just parents, or those in “loco parentis”, like the head-teacher of a boarding school?

There’s good academic writing on the psychiatry of early broken attachment and “boarding school syndrome” – see Professor Joy Schaverien here. Psychotherapist Nick Duffell’s books The Making of Them (2000) and Wounded Leaders (2014) – downloadable here – are well worth reading.

Therapy appears to have a high success rate with people who have suffered these traumas – more details from Boarding Concern.

If you want to write to me in confidence about your experiences, good or bad, please do so at I will respond. It may take a little while – it’s a full in-box.

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5 thoughts on “Boarding schools – abuse and redress

  1. Pingback: A chance to make it illegal to ignore child abuse | Alex Renton

  2. Thank you, Mr. Renton. I have only just begun to read your work in this field, but it has already struck many chords in my own experience, and helped to explain why I and my 2 sisters were never the normal, functioning family that – thank God! – my children seem to have created so much more effectively.

    I am in my 70s, and first went to boarding school at age 8 or 9, in the Isle of Man. The family home at the time was in a village near Daventry. The school (King Williams – you may know of it) had caring staff, and I believe they did their best to alleviate my anxieties at being “abandoned”. Not then a conscious idea, I remember being very alone, and desperate at the inability to communicate with family and my best friend. I wasn’t a bad letter writer, but certainly not a good one; letter writing was the only medium available, of course. And I didn’t spend every spare moment writing letters; I spent a lot of time reading, and on one remarkable occasion, solving extra maths problems.

    This episode was brief – I suspect the headmaster was smart enough to tell my parents that it wasn’t working – and I returned to England and went to boarding prep-school there again
    before going to Uppingham for the normal 4 years and 3 A Levels. I didn’t enjoy the experience much, and, although not criminal, I was responsible for some disruptive behaviour which earned me a beating or 2. This was considered normal at the time, of course, and I didn’t consider it then as abuse in the modern sense. I just couldn’t wait to leave it all behind.

    Armed with what had become an under-confident and introspective character, I then joined the RAF – my family couldn’t afford to help with university fees, and the RAF offered a scholarship. I had wanted to fly, as my father had, but astigmatism apparently was against me, so I became an engineer officer and served 30 years without any remarkable career milestones.

    Only now, a quarter century later, am I seeing my mistakes that lack of confidence led me to make. I started writing this for 2 reasons: the first was to thank you, let you know that I see the revelations you’re making are well overdue, and assure you know that I shall read much more of your work as time allows. The second is to ask if I might contact you in the future for permission to quote briefly, if necessary, from your articles. I have begun to write my wife’s story, in which a bad boarding school experience plays a major role.

    Briefly, she was aged 8, Home was mostly caring, although her father’s busy and successful flying career (as senior training captain for the fledgling SAS), meant he wasn’t around much of the time. However, his affair with one of her father’s stewardesses, (sorry, flight attendants!), led to a nasty divorce. My wife and her sister (then aged 4), both raised in the Anglican faith, were shunted off to a Catholic convent boarding school. The abuse there was principally mental, but undoubtedly severely damaging for both children.

    I am still pulling out the details when my wife will allow. As remarkable, however, is what she did later in life, which makes her role as survivor well worth recounting.

    As I said, I hope you may allow me to contact you in the future if a quotation will add credibility to my wife’s narrative.

    Thank you again,

    Roger Scott

    • Dear Roger
      I’m sorry to take so long to reply to this. Please do feel free to contact me and to quote from my work. My email is on the contacts page.
      Thanks for telling me your story, which accords with many others I’ve received. I’ve now written a book about the British and their boarding school system, its effects on individuals and society – it’s out in April 2017 with Weidenfeld & Nicolson, titled Stiff Upper Lip. I’ll post more information soon.
      All the best

  3. Pingback: Caldicott School: Child Sexual Abusers and Timeline | cathy fox blog

  4. Alex, I have just emailed you. I think that there is a lot to uncover regarding sexual abuse of young boys in the 1990s in Christ’s Hospital boarding school. I urge you to investigate this further and make a public call for victims to come forward so that the paedophiles are brought to justice.

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