Psychologist logo

The psychological consequences of boarding school

Sad Little Men by Richard Beard (Harvill Secker), reviewed by Dr Sam Spedding.

07 February 2022

In this investigation of how the psychological environment of boarding school has enabled the British ruling class to make the decisions that shape our current experience, Richard Beard’s influences and sources are diverse. He takes Hannah Arendt and Erving Goffman (whose definition of ‘totalising institutions’ in Asylums included boarding schools) as his guides and plumbs the contemporary literature on what the psychotherapist Joy Shaverien has dubbed ‘boarding school syndrome’, by way of Molesworth, Orwell and biographies of Hitler and Stalin.

The most electric ingredient, however, is the autobiographical material. Beard, winner of the 2018 PEN Ackerley Prize for autobiography, relates in bracing detail the schism from his parents at the age of eight, the necessary and far-reaching emotional strategies he used to survive boarding and his difficulty integrating the fallout with emotional life as an adult.

As another former boarding school subject, I found his account unflinching and emotive. The examination of boyish defences against abandonment – attacking others’ weaknesses, emotional detachment – felt particularly evocative. Emotional detachment is clearly common in male communication outside boarding schools, but when alloyed with irony, competitiveness and entitlement and gilded with manners, it forms an impenetrable armour of class and privilege. Beard convincingly connects these emotional survival strategies to the way totalitarian institutions indoctrinate their subjects with the capacity to other. Emotional repression and misplaced pride facilitate the subjugation and dehumanisation of outsiders by gender, race and class. To the insiders, they become like the ‘proles’ in Orwell’s 1984.

On a more personal level Beard describes how such counter-emotional tooling up can render relationships with women in later life unsatisfying. However, relatively little is said about sexuality at boarding schools. In the light of recent allegations of rape and sexual abuse in private schools, this feels like an omission. During my time at Winchester College in the 1990s (as I am sure was the case at other boys’ boarding schools) abuse was perpetuated by top-down, institutional homophobia and shame. Beard’s single sentence about his sexual experience at school seems elliptical in this context.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal more for him to endure at boarding school: cold, privation, the threat of beatings, essentially an absence of things we might reasonably expect from mothers. And mothers do loom large (if distant) in this book. A key question for Beard is how the mothers we loved so much came to tear us away from our homes. ‘What on earth were you thinking?’ Beard asks his mother over the phone, to which she replies, ‘It was your father’s decision’ and later… ‘We wanted what was best for you.’

He knew she was going to say that. It is the kind of stock answer that makes it so difficult for children to complain. It is a wall of received wisdom that is at once emotionally invalidating and yet appealingly seductive. Accordingly Beard, whose father wanted to establish him firmly in the upper echelons of the British class system, did at one stage begin to plot his ascendancy to power. At the last minute he got distracted – and at that very moment we get the impression that his path begins to diverge from the crowd of proto-Johnsons and -Camerons who would rule the country 30 years later.   

To some extent, Sad Little Men is a meditation on Beard’s escape from their fate. He ends up living in Radley village, from where he ghosts the grounds of his former school, emptied of pupils by Covid restrictions in the year that he writes the book. Here he renegotiates the psychological geography of his past, forever working out where he is welcome or unwelcome. The very project of writing honestly and critically about his school years feels to him like a trespass. 

There is ultimately catharsis. Beard symbolically walks out of his old school alongside his 17-year-old self, girded with the lessons from books, therapy and other relationships intent on breaking the generational chain of emotional deprivation. At this point I let out a long exhalation. I felt thankful that I too was being allowed to come home although, if I am honest, a little apprehensive about the psychological work I might have yet to do. 

There is a lot in this book for people interested in understanding more about the psychological sequelae of years spent at boarding school, from a personal or clinical perspective. There is also a lot for those engaged in understanding and challenging patriarchy, class and power through the prism of education. Recently, I have come back to this more political end of Beard’s enterprise. If the boarding school effect has an impact on politics on a national level, another unsettling question arises: how might it be impacting leadership in medicine and healthcare?

- Reviewed by Dr Sam Spedding, Consultant Counselling Psychologist, King’s College Hospital