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The positives of boarding schools

Mallory Wober responds to recent coverage.

10 November 2017

A letter from Nick Duffell (April 2016) portrayed boarding school as a dangerous experience – almost a war zone in its effects on pupils, some (or all?) of whom were termed ‘boarding school survivors’. In June 2016 a letter answered Duffell’s cry that ‘we need more evidence-based research …to develop this field’ pointing out that Martin et al. had indeed not long before (2014) published a large study on this topic, based in Australia. They found that ‘Boarding students were significantly higher on … eight measures including … sense of meaning (and) …life satisfaction…’. This positive perspective echoed an earlier and not insubstantial study of mine whose fieldwork took place in 1967 in the UK (Wober, 1971).

Now a new book by Martin Stibbe (Home at Last) has been reviewed in The Psychologist (September 2017) by Nick Duffell, whose own new book is also reviewed on a facing page illustrated by what seems an old photograph showing girl pupils (presumably at a boarding school) cheerfully laughing during a meal.

Three points on this arcane area should be recognised. First, to talk of ‘boarding school survival’ is misleading, perhaps even immoral – a survivor is one who lives on when others have died (consider wars, natural disasters, Grenfell Tower) and whose ultimate suffering is derogated by this overarching term. The books by Stibbe and Duffell evidently reflect a clinical perspective, working with some ex-pupils who have certainly experienced trauma and stress disorders; they have, as have others who did not present for treatment, all been survivors.

Second, Martin et al.’s study was an empirical social psychological study, as was my own. This included a pioneering measure of ‘enjoy being at school’ (p.93 with a chapter developing the connections between this individual and other societal measures); and an equally innovative measure asking pupils to judge how ‘being at school [has] affected your relationship with your family’ (p.222 also substantiating a whole chapter). Here, among 1393 girls in 20 schools it emerged that ‘77 per cent…[took] the view that boarding affects family relationships beneficially’ (p.224). Again, this personal estimation was shown as connected with a variety of other personal, family and school institutional measures.

Third, my study examined boarding in developed Western countries as part of a phenomenon related to teen-aged ‘extrusion’ systems among many non-Western countries, reported by social anthropologists. The opposition to boarding in the UK in recent decades (dramatised in Lindsay Anderson’s film if…) is political, opposing a mechanism for perpetuating privilege; but local authority maintained boarding schools for children with particular needs also exist and the two – that is fee-paying and boarding, though they do overlap considerably – should not be taken as a single category.     

Mallory Wober
London NW3

Wober, M. (1971). English girls’ boarding schools. London: Allen Lane.