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Children, young people and families, Education

Boarding school syndrome

Do we need more research into the 'Strategic Survival Personality'? A letter from Nick Duffell in the April edition.

07 March 2016

The BBC’s lavish new television production of John Le Carré’s The Night Manager opens with a ‘well-spoken’ but rootless Englishman unwittingly getting caught up in international crime and espionage. It is a theme that Le Carré, who was sent to boarding school at the age of five, has worked countless times. On the same weekend, leading academic psychologist Richard Bentall blogged on television presenter/actor Stephen Fry’s pronouncements on mental health issues, beginning his open letter by casually mentioning that they both suffered at the same elite boarding school.

Why would this be important for psychologists?

In 2000 I published the first account of specialist psychotherapy with ex-boarders, The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System, following a 10-year study of this little-known client group. I argued that to cope with the rupture of attachments in the latency period, boarding children construct what I called a ‘Strategic Survival Personality’. Once adopted, this personality is exceedingly hard to put away, and future adult life – especially intimacy – becomes problematic. Additionally, many children get abused or otherwise damaged in these institutions.

Since then, several articles and more books on this subject have appeared, including Professor Joy Schaverien’s acclaimed Boarding School Syndrome. Now Routledge is publishing my book for therapists with Thurstine Basset, a mental health trainer, entitled Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege. In October the University of Kassel will host the first international conference on the effectiveness of boarding. Yet there is still a lack of recognition around the issue. Has it become normalised, in the way that boarding itself has? Is there a reverse snobbery, because the problems of the elite might not merit attention? This may be a dangerous omission, given the social prominence of ex-boarders – in the government, for example.

If perhaps overlooked by the psychology profession, the mindset of ex-boarders is a well-worked theme in English literature. Le Carré endlessly and repeatedly highlights the ex-boarder’s survival imperative and ability to dissociate and mislead, which is what makes them Perfect Spies (to quote Le Carré’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece), living life behind a multi-faceted character style. In the TV adaptation of The Night Manager, our hero’s chameleon personality is referred to as ‘the changing of the guard’. I have no doubt this duplicitous personality habit is still required learning in an elite boarding school: we can recognise the fallout in the leaders in most of our institutions.

We urgently need more evidence-based research, but a possible syndrome that begins at age eight and might not show itself for 30 years, is accepted by the public as ‘normal’ and is represented by vested interests could be notoriously difficult to research. We need your help to develop this field.

Nick Duffell