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Why public school f***s you up — and how the nation pays

Psychohistorian and psychologist NICK DUFFELL speaks to Richard House about the distinct damage the British boarding school system does to its pupils – and Britain

Richard House (RH): Can you say when and how you first realised that there’s a major specifically psychological issue with Britain’s public schooling system?

Nick Duffell (ND): Yes, it is strange because it affects our nation so much, but it’s such hidden and normalised issue.

I became aware of the problem in three stages. First, when I was a lad of 13 and had already been a boarder, but at an American school.

I then went to a major English public school in which daily life meant negotiating a whole raft of absurd rules and privileges whilst the authorities both told you you were “a stupid boy” who knew nothing, and at the same time that you were going to have defend the nation against the Germans when they rose up to smite us again (which they would), and I would be one of those responsible for our victory.

Secondly, when I was a young man teaching at a boarding school in India. Knowing a bit about the history of the British Raj, I wondered why everyone was so nice to me.

And why did they say so many good things about the British?

I imagined that the British had done some kind of trick on the Indians and done something else to themselves on the inside, as it were.

I was fishing in the right pond, but it took me years to discover what these psychological tricks were.

Finally, in 1987 I was assisting on a group therapy project for men, where I realised there were some men in the group who recognised each other in terms of a strange kind of wounding, and needed a different approach.

What they all had in common was they had been boarders — like myself.

So I set out to investigate the issue, wrote my dissertation on it and in 1990 started running therapeutic groups specifically for male ex-boarders.

The workshop programme, which I proactively called “Boarding School Survivors,” is still going today, now run by staff I have trained.

RH: So what are the main psychological “symptoms” that boarding school survivors exhibit and what do you see as the main causes of such symptoms?

ND: There are a variety of symptoms, from the most banal — such as workaholism/”timetabling,” because after living for years on a timetable designed to avoid unstructured free time (known as “idleness”) it’s hard to lose the habit — down to more serious symptoms, eg inability to feel any emotions at all.

Most common is the inability to handle intimate relationships or operate as part of a family.

Unsurprising, given the thorough-going institutionalisation; but more complex is that symptoms may be masked by an ability to function — often very well — in the world of work and social relations, which is precisely what the public schools train you for.

But there’s often an underlying anxiety, that can be either completely normalised, as in “the world is a hostile place” (a sign of developmental trauma), and/or it may be completely unconscious, with no awareness of it.

This then drives the classic diffident public school man — the sort of “nice guy” English ideal, portrayed by actors like Hugh Grant or Ian Carmichael, as well as the more aggressive types we see dominating our national political scene.

Journalists regularly claim I’m saying that boarding damages everyone; but all children do have to survive forced separation very young, disowning their sadness and softer side — by erecting a “strategic survival personality.”

Each child designs a mask to wear, so I tell the journo that in boarding schools they’ll just see children wearing happy masks.

They’re certainly not going to risk disappointing their parents further by saying they’re unhappy.

So the other universal symptom is a skill in duplicity — terribly useful in such rule-bound institutions, and a trait that gets honed later in British politics, as we know.

I call the three observable personality types “compliers,” “rebels” and “the crushed.”

When neglect is normalised, abuse readily occurs, so “the crushed” includes the victimised and bullied, unable because of earlier trauma to erect a believable survival personality.

These are the tragedies of the system. A boy at my public school killed himself because he got so much unwanted attention because he was beautiful.

“The rebels” are the most difficult to treat; and their dearth of poor authority figures leaves them distrusting all authority — including their own internal authority.

The mantra of the largest “compliers” group is “It never did me any harm,” and they defend their strategic survival personality quite forcefully, ridiculing anyone suggesting they may be wounded by the experience. This type often have a breakdown at some point.

RH: Can you say more about how these traumas drive and distort the attitudes and decision-making of political leaders?

ND: Well, the main thing is that if you’ve been forced to completely dissociate from your natural vulnerability, you can never hope to understand the vulnerable in society.

Neuroscience now proves that if you don’t have emotional intelligence you cannot make good choices; for me, this is the science behind what economist Will Hutton says, that the Tory Party has consistently made bad decisions over decades.

And then there’s the duplicity habit, referred to earlier: if you have a strategic survival personality running your life, you lose touch with what’s true or what’s a lie; you can never be wrong — which is why, even now, Tony Blair cannot admit he was wrong over Iraq.

Boarding school survivors can’t join groups and become team players unless they’ve done the necessary inner work; so we haven’t even really joined Europe yet, despite feeling we should either lead it or quit it. In short, elite boarding is a terrible training for good leadership.

RH: It’s outrageous that, as Robert Verkaik outlines in his book Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain, these schools receive massive fees, yet as charities pay no rates, corporation tax or investment-income tax. And were VAT charged on fees, it would yield £1.5 billion of tax annually. So what, in your view, is to be done? What line would you advise a left-Corbyn government to take with this toxic class-based schooling system?

ND: It’s vital that Corbyn engages some good advisers on mental health issues in the light of what we now know about psychopathology not only affecting the less privileged, but also the elite.

He should take note of George Monbiot’s recent suggestion in the Guardian of mandatory psychotherapy for would-be political leaders.

Boarding younger than 16 should be stopped, and the existing facilities become residential sixth-form colleges on the model of the Danish “efterskol” and the tax concessions to private schools should be reversed.

Nick Duffell is a is psychotherapist, author and psychohistorian based in London. His books include Wounded Leaders, The Making of Them and (with Thurstine Basset) Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege. Richard House is a left-green Corbynista activist in Stroud.

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