Abuse and violence in boarding schools

July 28, 2014: I’m writing a series of stories looking at abuse in British boarding schools and its wider context – social, historical and psychological. The latest piece, published July 21st in the Observer magazine, looked at the experiences of those who have loved and cared for survivors of abuse, and the immense collateral damage early trauma can do. A lot of it 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

Here’s the first piecepublished May 4 in the Observer. It covers my personal 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.

Boarding_schoolsChildren 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. 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.

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 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.

There’s good academic writing on the psychiatry of early broken attachment and “boarding school syndrome” – see Professor Joy Schaverien here.

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 alex.renton@observer.co.uk. I will respond. It may take a little while – it’s a full in-box.


We can end early boarding

Nov 2014. I’ve joined the advisory board of Boarding School Action, a group campaigning to end early boarding. Also involved is Nick Duffell; the director of BSA is Sally Fraser.

BSA is a not-for-profit organisation and currently pays no salaries. I’m helping raise funds for campaigning, lobbying, media work and for administration. Please donate via the BSA site and sign up for updates. You can donate here by PayPal.

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Click this button do donate to support the work of Boarding School Action.

Male bonding: The public schoolboy

7th August 2010

If ex public schoolboys are “the most screwed-up socioethnic sub-group”, it’s no wonder we struggle to find male friends.

I wish I’d married a man,” a friend said to me. He sighed: “There’d still be no sex but there’d be more conversation.” I’d been up very early and I’d texted him saying “Let’s talk”, because there was business to be done: a sailing weekend to plan, a catch-up on our family dramas, some advice I needed on some work. And here we were, an hour into that chat and still with half-a-dozen enticing alleys to wander down. We had to stop: there were children stirring, cups of tea to take to wives in bed.

Read on at Times Online

Word of Mouth: The parable of the slaughtered lamb

12th February 2010, Guardian Online

the slaughtered lamb parable

Lambs. Photo: Alamy

Should children be taught about where meat comes from, or is it better that they come to realise the realities of rearing and slaughter later in life?

Utterly mad and particularly British is this week’s story of a Kent head teacher forced from her job because she slaughtered the school farm’s lamb.

Andrea Charman had thought it a good way of teaching the children about the agricultural economy and the food cycle, and they agreed. But then some of their parents started social network campaigns to rescue the lamb. It took off. The lamb was duly slaughtered, the threats began and now she has quit. The lamb – Marcus – has had his revenge.

Word of Mouth: Baby steps towards better regulation

14th January 2010, Guardian Website

A rebuff for Heinz over an outrageous baby formula TV ad is bad news for food corps and their ever-more-sophisticated tweaks of parental guilt. But Heinz needs a proper spanking.

Heinz has received an embarrassing ticking-off from the Advertising Standards Authority for the nauseating TV advert for its baby milk, Nurture, above. The ASA said on Monday that the claim that the formula would support growth in the brain, body and immune system of a baby was “unsubstantiated” and “unacceptable”.

Campaigners for honest food are delighted. This is a boost in the next front in the long-running war over children’s food claims: promises that food supplements can aid mental development. (How long-running? In the 1890s John Harvey Kellogg said that his cornflakes would prevent masturbation in young men, while in 1903 Grape Nuts promised a cure for malaria and loose teeth.)

Read the rest of this post at the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog.

Fewer British babies would mean a fairer planet

25 October 2009 The Observer

It’s not the growing number of people in poverty who are causing climate change, it’s the rich

The worst thing that you or I can do for the planet is to have children. If they behave as the average person in the rich world does now, they will emit some 11 tonnes of CO² every year of their lives. In their turn, they are likely to have more carbon-emitting children who will make an even bigger mess. If Britain is to meet the government’s target of an 80% reduction in our emissions by 2050, we need to start reversing our rising rate of population growth immediately.

And if that makes sense, why not start cutting population everywhere? Are condoms not the greenest technology of all?