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“You would not expect that at a public school. How could this have happened?”



Last week a 16-year-old boy was charged with two accounts of attempted murder in a boarding school in Devon. He wishes to remain anonymous, but with his permission, I am sharing a piece of writing that was shared with me by a former ex-pupil of this school.




“You would not expect that at a public school. How could this have happened?”


This was the text a relative sent me this weekend upon hearing the news that boys from a British public school had been attacked over the weekend by a fellow pupil.


This got me thinking about that question. How and why could this have happened?


As someone who attended this particular school as a boarder, and who lived in the house where the attack took place, I feel that I have some answers.


Although from a very happy home, I did not find happiness there. Bullying was rife. I coped, head down, and just got on day by day. A house of teenage boys with limited emotional guidance creates a Darwinian environment (although Matron was gentle and kind, there was only one of her and sixty of us and is no replacement for a parent). Most teenagers do not have the skills to deal with the emotional pressure cooker of boarding school and have to find a way to cope without family members there to reframe, rationalise, and most importantly listen.


I learned to be hyper-vigilant, surveying the landscape to see what response the situation required, always planning several steps ahead so that, if necessary, I could modify my response to satisfy those that needed to be appeased. This has been written about with insight in books such as Nick Duffell’s ‘The Making of Them’ and Joy Schaverien’s ‘Boarding School Syndrome’. A lesson I learned the hard way in that school was to hold self-reliance in the highest regard; to never, ever ask for help.


The merest hint of emotion, either positive or negative, is seen as weakness, and preyed upon by your peers. This is replicated if you are perceived to be different in any way.


If you are elated or excited about something, your peers will strive to take it away because you have shown emotion, a chink in the armour. If you show upset, or anger it will be equally savagely attacked, creating a vicious circle. This leads to heavily repressed emotions, which can easily boil over into violence in certain situations.


To survive, these children must learn to wear a mask that can never slip, day or night, months at a time. It is the boarder’s psychological armour. There is always someone bigger, older, and more formidable to bring you down a peg. The mask allows you to blend in, to be part of the pack.


This ability can be very useful. It can lead to great power and ascending the professional ladder, as Nick Duffell discussed in ‘Wounded Leaders’. In the case of our former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his home-life clearly shaped his character, but were clearly magnified by the well-documented culture at Eton. He has spent many years mask-wearing and shape-shifting, and the constant shifting sands of his opinions have eventually had repercussions. I am unsurprised at his resignation letter in response to the results of the Partygate inquiry. His mask is a tool that has worked for decades and catapulted him to the highest office in the land. It is also, as he is well placed to recognise with his love of the Classics, his Achilles Heel.


I took similar lessons into my adult life with some great advantages, and some obvious disadvantages. I am still trying to unlearn them decades later — asking for help to this day is still difficult.

It is not lost on me that it is a uniquely British thing to tear away a young child in their formative years from their parents and then to expect them to be emotionally adjusted people. I know during my time there I felt the push-pull of both how far away from home I was and how privileged I was to even be there. This only adds guilt to the pressure not to disappoint those who have paid a great sum of money to give you an advantage in life. Historically, boarding schools made Officers of the Empire, and the ‘stiff upper lip’ was something to aspire to. Although times have moved on, and luckily so has broader society’s approach to mental health and emotional expression, have British boarding schools?


So in answer to my relative’s question, I am shocked at what occurred, as I am at all violent crime, particularly among the young and ‘privileged’, but I am not surprised. I just hope all involved get the time and space to try and process everything that they have endured. It will be a long road. "


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