New Research Challenges ‘Boarding School Syndrome’

21 August 2023
Time to read
5 minute read
Penny Cavenagh, who co-authored the research
Professor Penny Cavenagh

Problematic parenting could play a bigger role in why some children suffer the trauma of ‘boarding school syndrome’ than the actual schools themselves, according to new research.

In fact, the new research challenges the existing thinking around ‘boarding school syndrome’ and suggests it should be reframed as ‘boarding family syndrome’ to better reflect the role parents have on how their children experience boarding school and the long-term psychological impact on them.

The term ‘boarding school syndrome’ has long been associated with the severe psychological impact of boarding school on some boarders – such as problems with relationships, depression and long-term emotional and behavioural difficulties.

The new book,The Psychological Impact of Boarding School: The Trunk in the Hall, co-authored by Professor Penny Cavenagh, from the University of Suffolk, acknowledges the severe psychological impact of child abuse that has taken place in British boarding schools on adult psychological wellbeing and makes a number of recommendations for continued improvement.

However, it suggests parenting styles, how a family functions and its capacity for “emotional expression” may have a significant impact on the psychological development of boarders too.

“Our findings show that boarding schools cannot be held totally accountable for some of the psychological problems encountered by ex-boarders,” explained co-author Professor Susan McPherson, from the University of Essex. “Our research suggests that family relationships and parenting are key to how children experience boarding school.”

She added: “We must never forget that boarding school was a horrific experience for many people, but it has not been the same experience for everyone and ‘boarding school syndrome’ needs to be reframed to reflect this. Our research uncovered other reasons such as less parental warmth and more parental rejection that could be part of the explanation for the unhappy experiences of some ex-boarders and subsequent effect on their adult lives.”

The book offers the most comprehensive research to date on the impact of boarding school by taking into account a wider population of ex-boarders, acknowledging that experiences of abuse at boarding school are not universal or inevitable.

Previous research on boarding schools has tended to suggest a direct cause and effect between attending boarding school and the psychological issues termed ‘boarding school syndrome’.

Through a combination of first-person accounts as well as larger scale surveys involving 186 male and female ex-boarders aged from 19 to 85, the book fills gaps in current boarding school research and presents new findings.

Whilst addressing issues such as eating disorders, loneliness and relationships amongst boarders, it also highlights that the younger the child is when they go to boarding school the more traumatic the experience is for them.

The book is also keen to highlight the boarders who had good experiences of boarding school and felt it had taught them to have a strong sense of independence as well as learning valuable life lessons such as the art of diplomacy, how to fit in, communicate and manage differences.

“Ex-boarders who had good experiences of boarding school talked about the building of resilience and felt this had been a tremendous advantage in their lives,” added co-author Professor Penny Cavenagh, from the University of Suffolk. “Ex-boarders who enjoyed boarding school made good friendships and reported happy family homes and good relationships with their parents.

“Conversely some boarders who enjoyed boarding school, liked it because it was better than a dysfunctional home environment.”

Boarding schools have moved on in many ways in recent decades including improvements in safeguarding to minimise risks and the introduction of minimum national standards reviewed at regular intervals by the Department of Education.

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