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The kindness of strangers

“Boarding schools: Is it wise to send your young child away from home?” asks the Observer, as the Sunday version of the Guardian is still quaintly calling itself. The answer, it says, is no.

An astonishing number of British parents still send pre-teen children away to boarding school – about 4,000 of them are 10 years old or younger. Numbers have not declined in 15 years. Even if we do get the necessary safeguards of mandatory reporting and a new law on emotional abuse, parents should be questioning the need to risk their child’s happy development by sending them away. If they are unhappy, are you sure you would know? As a reader commented: “When you give your child to a stranger who does not love them, you take a gamble. If your child is miserable, then you are neglecting them. Can you live with that?”

No pressure or anything! Seriously, I have no personal experiences as either parent or child to recount and no general opinion on whether boarding schools are in general good or bad. I have known both those who hated and those who loved their time as boarders. The question that leapt to my mind on reading that paragraph was something a little different:

How come giving your ten year old child to “a stranger who does not love them” is to place their happiness and your very soul as a parent at hazard but giving your three month old child to a stranger who does not love them is practically obligatory on grounds of gender equity?

I have only slightly more of a personal stake in this one. I never went to any sort of nursery or playgroup as a child; my own children had paid pre-school childcare some of the time and have turned out no loopier than their parents. Once again, I have known others with both good and bad experiences. It is the discrepancy between the Guardian-reading classes’ opinions about subcontracting your childcare for a baby and for an older child that interests me. The usual feminist opinion is that anyone who makes the suggestion that mothers ought to so much as look back over their shoulders as they stride out from the nursery gate on their way to the 9am meeting can only be motivated by a desire to keep women chained to the sink. Taking an example at random, “At last, working mothers can ditch the guilt – their children do not suffer,” writes the regular columnist Polly Toynbee. Maybe she is right and they do not suffer. The playgroup leaders always said they stopped crying once I was out of sight. But is the parent’s confidence in that merciful amnesia for a baby or toddler dependent on adults for its survival hour by hour really so much more justified than it is for a child entering boarding school years later?

UPDATE: A very good point, made in the comments below and also in discussion over at Tim Worstall’s blog, is that boarding school is 24/7 whereas daycare is not. However I think that makes less difference than it seems at first sight, because for a child of 0 – 4 years to be in daycare long enough for the mother to do a full time job five days a week with, say, an hour’s commute from nursery to workplace, does in practice mean that for the child almost every waking hour from Monday to Friday will be spent in daycare simply because babies and toddlers need much more sleep than older children.

28 comments to The kindness of strangers

  • “When you give your child to a stranger who does not love them, you take a gamble. If your child is miserable, then you are neglecting them. Can you live with that?”

    This is also an argument against mandatory state schooling.

  • Stonyground

    My daughter went to a nursery a couple of times a week and she loved it there. I also think that it had a positive effect on her, in particular on her ability to socialise. When she left to move onto school I recall seeing several nursery nurses in floods of tears as they said goodbye to a batch of little ones that they would never see again. I presume that this must be an annual occurrence.

    Regarding boarding schools, my only experience of them comes from reading Jennings books so I can’t really comment.

  • Lee Moore

    I think it’s merely tactical, ie “here’s ANOTHER reason why (a) private schools must be banned immediately (b) homeschooling must be banned immediately and (c ) we at the GraunoBeeboObserver must determine how every child in the country is brought up. WITHOUT EXCEPTION !”

    It’s not intended to be taken literally, the repeated counterrevolutionary references to “your child” being a dead giveaway. Everyone knows parents are not in a “your” relationship with the children they happen to have generated. They are merely the state’s agents for feeding and clothing purposes. Any education is the state’s business.

  • This is also an argument against mandatory state schooling.

    Thread winner

  • “The letter comes after an article in last week’s Observer Magazine by journalist Alex Renton about abuse and neglect and the “no-hugs” culture in boarding schools”

    Oh dear gawd, I find such sentiments filling me with the urge to ‘hug’ Alex Renton’s neck with both my hands. Could he possibly be any more drippy?

    In today’s news, a left wing newspaper opposes non-left wing people’s ability to make choices. Next in today’s news, it has been revealed after a tax subsidised ten year study that yes, bears really do poop in the woods, and it may be a contributing factor to global warming.

  • Jimmy Savile liked to hug kids, didn’t he?

  • Paul Marks

    Quite correct Ted – the first comment especially.

    As for the leftist position (boarding school bad – “day care” for much younger children good) it makes no sense at all – none.

    Certainly children are bullied at boarding school – but they are also bullied at day schools.

    Indeed boarding schools often have more robust ways of dealing with bullies than day schools have.

  • Laird

    I have no personal experience with boarding schools (they seem to be a uniquely British phenomenon; there are almost none in the US) or with daycare facilities (we did send our son to a Montessori preschool, mostly for socialization purposes, and it was a good experience), but the obvious answer to Natalie’s question is that boarding school is a 24/7 proposition. Daycare (and, for that matter, state schooling) only has the child for a few hours a day. The rest of the time the child is with his family. Obviously that’s not the case with boarding school at which, as far as I know, the child doesn’t even come home on weekends. To me that’s a pretty significant difference, and frankly I wouldn’t have wanted my child to endure it.

    But boarding school does seem to have been a part of British culture for a very long time, so perhaps that mitigates the trauma.

  • I really don’t get the whole notion of boarding school being a ‘trauma’ in need of mitigation at all. I certainly did not find that to be the case, and I got on with my folks just fine. That did not make it traumatic to not be glued to them 365 days a year. Quite the contrary.

    Indeed much as I am ideologically drawn to home schooling, based on my experiences I suspect I would have got on with my folks a great deal less well if I had been stuck in orbit around them constantly.

  • Very retired

    I remember a conversation swmbo and I were having several years ago while we were out for dinner. As part of a larger topic, I mentioned that there were going to some very surprised and hurt parents from our generation when they got elderly and their kids popped them into a home someplace.

    When the disappointed elders asked why they couldn’t live with their children, the kids would simply remind them that they hadn’t hesitated to put their kids in daycare when it was too inconvenient for them to raise them at home, so what did the elders expect would happen when they became a burden?

    The boss told me later there was an affluent couple at a nearby table who obviously heard what I said and looked so shocked and upset she thought they were going to start arguing with me.

    I wouldn’t have cared if they had, but apparently it does come as a shock to some that the old saying about what goes around comes around is really true.

    If you can’t be bothered, why should they?

  • I always rather assumed boarding school was for my benefit rather than that of my folks to be honest, what with it costing rather a lot of money.

    I looked after mine until they fell off the perch, though one did go into a home near the end when he became brain damaged after some cunt knocked him down with a motorbike. He really needed 24/7 specialist care after that. And yes that was expensive.

  • Mr Ed

    I went to a boarding school coming up to 12, it was very enjoyable, and frankly as you only have one childhood, you cannot do a double-experiment to see if you would be happier away from one back home. I do know that the alternative, my local Comprehensive (a public school for our US friends for 11-18) was reputed mainly for the alleged practice of bog washing, holding a child up by his ankles and dipping head of child into lavatory bowl (flushed, we hoped at the feeder school). That was probably exaggerated or a one-off, but the state school standards were notoriously low.

    The main advantage of boarding school seemed to be to develop a penchant or appreciation for elaborate practical jokes, an intense interest in working round the rules and not getting caught and a chance for pupils to get away from embarrassing parents (most are between 12 and 15). The main downside was the appalling food, my brother’s first meal :- deep-fried Marmite fritters, stale bread spread with butter and Marmite (yeast extract) deep-fried in sunflower oil. The only meal they got right was the Christmas lunch, which was consistently excellent. There were a few obvious paedo teachers, but they were limited in what they could do, only two cases of molestation came to light in 7 years, one of which was older boys on younger.

    I had a neighbour who was English upper middle class, and aged 7 during WW2, his mother put him on a train to go to King’s School, Canterbury and simply told him to get off at the right station where he would be met. He made it, mind you, he also got arrested twice by Idi Amin’s police in Uganda and survived.

  • Rich Rostrom

    What Lee Moore said: this is an attack on what is seen as a British upper class tradition, regardless of merits.

    Laird @May 11, 2014 at 9:16 pm: I have no personal experience with boarding schools (they seem to be a uniquely British phenomenon; there are almost none in the US)…

    There are actually a fair number, quite possibly comparable to the number in Britain, but in the far larger U.S. they aren’t as visible. The upper-class “prep school” is almost exclusively an East Coast establishment thing.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)


    the obvious answer to Natalie’s question is that boarding school is a 24/7 proposition. Daycare (and, for that matter, state schooling) only has the child for a few hours a day.

    Granted, boarding school is usually 24/7 (though coming home at weekends for those pupils living near enough is not that rare, particularly for younger children), but for a child of 0 – 4 years to be in daycare long enough for the mother to do a full time job five days a week with, say, an hour’s commute from nursery to workplace, does in practice mean that for the child almost every waking hour between Monday to Friday will be spent in daycare.

    This is personal experience talking: at one point I worked three, then later four, full days a week with over an hour’s commute, and on those days getting my child up and dressed in the morning was the only “contact time”. I was very glad of the extra day, and had the good fortune to have childcare that was a million miles from “giving your child to a stranger who does not love them”. But that is the way it works out, since young children sleep a lot. Bedtime at 6.30 pm is about when mummy’s train is coming in.

    And there is a very strong strain in feminist thought that says that women doing anything other than working full time are betraying themselves and their gender, and to this end free state childcare should be provided either literally 24/7 or at least starting very early and ending very late.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    BTW, I am aware that fathers are also parents and sometimes the main caregivers – but given that the main reason for what I see as the double standard addressed in this post is feminism, I have confined myself to talking about mothers.

    Furthermore there is another very strong strain within feminism that says that two parents are not necessary and that the nuclear family is inherently oppressive and patriarchal. They don’t like the traditional role of the mother much either, seeing it as demeaning.

  • Lee Moore

    I had a neighbour who was English upper middle class, and aged 7 during WW2, his mother put him on a train to go to King’s School, Canterbury and simply told him to get off at the right station where he would be met.

    I thought that in that in t’olden days there was an official system for sending unaccompanied children “in the care of the guard.”

    I like the tale of Alan Turing, very keen to get to his first day of boarding school, and finding that he couldn’t get there by rail because of the General Strike, getting on his bike and pedalling sixty miles to get there.

    Last random thought – clearly some people who go to boarding school hate it. My brother was one – not so much because he missed home, more because he has never been able to cope with other people telling him what to do, and that happens quite a lot at boarding schools. I certainly looked forward to the holidays, but without wishing to imply that I wasn’t happy to see my parents, I think the main reason was that the holidays were holidays. School is an interruption in one’s free time, and boarding schools specialise in minimising free time, on the undoubtedly correct theory that no possible good can come of it.

  • […] An interesting difference between day care and boarding school….. […]

  • I spent my last four years of “schooling” (scare quotes intended) at a boarding school, and loved every moment of it. That not having been England, we were very rarely told what to do, and we had lots of free time.

    When I had my son, I thought that when he becomes an unruly teenager, I might send him to boarding school as well – to minimize unnecessary friction, resentment, etc. It didn’t turn out that way, mainly because even though he did go through That Stage, it was not nearly as bad as I was afraid it would be.

    Which brings me to another big difference overlooked in the article, and that in addition to the difference Laird mentioned – the age of the child. I was lucky enough to be able to afford staying at home when my son was young, so I am certainly not going to judge families, especially mothers, who have no choice but to use daycare to make ends meet. But I do think that the optimal setting for very young children is at home, with their parents, while one of them is there full-time. Young children also need to socialize with other children and adults, but ideally that should be done in some kind of a part-time setting, such as a playgroup or part-time daycare.

    That, depending on the child and the parents, as well as on other factors, may be very different for older children, especially teenagers. As Perry mentioned, having a teenager go away for a while to spend time with other kids (and adults), can save a lot of grief, plus have the benefit of building independence, “people skills” etc.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that, as has often been discussed here, the mindset in which teenagers are thought of as children is a relatively new development, and in my personal view an unwelcome one. Young people of these ages used to begin work, in the form of apprenticeship or similar, or simply continue helping out in the family business but in greater capacity. Others were sent to boarding schools, etc. In any case, no one thought anything of it, and most importantly: everyone agreed that one’s children were one’s own business.

  • Dyspeptic Curmudgeon


    Actually there are a LOT of boarding schools in North America. A fairly comprehensive list can be found at the web-site of The Association of Boarding Schools.


    The list contains at least 250 schools in the US and Canada. And there are probably a fair number of schools which are not members. I can think of three in Ontario which are not listed. since this appears to be a completely voluntary association (as it should be).

  • Mr Ed


    I am only reporting what we were told, I think in those days children were moving around all over the place in evacuations etc. and I doubt anyone batted an eyelid. Air raids were probably a greater concern in safety terms.

    The hatred of boarding schools is simply hatred of tradition, excellence and autonomy, all traits of the Left. They do nothing but hate and exult in misery, they really should lead neutral lives.

  • It’s well-known that taking a puppy away from its mother too early means that you’re more likely to end up with an insecure or even aggressive pet; why do so many people persist in believing that the same would not apply to a six-week-old baby suddenly deprived of its mother for most of the day?

  • llamas

    The list of US boarding schools does not include the still-very-popular military schools, especially-common in the South.

    I missed the English boarding-school route more by happenstance that as an active decision, which allowed me to be a day-boy rather than a boarder. I noticed that my boarding contemporaries fell on a continuum, where 90% were more-or-less OK with being boarders, and the other 10% being desperately unhappy.



  • why do so many people persist in believing that the same would not apply to a six-week-old baby suddenly deprived of its mother for most of the day?

    Because if they are placed in the state’s care, that is always good, because the state is good, and loving, and wise. But if a child is placed in someone else’s care without the state being involved in the decision, that is bad. Capisce?

  • Fraser Orr

    Further to the first comment in the thread, undoubtedly the same people who wrote this anti boarding school spiel would be vehemently opposed to home schooling. No doubt they would tell us that homeschooled kids are super needy, lacking in social skills and poorly educated. (Statistics on these matters notwithstanding.)

  • Roue le Jour

    My only knowledge of boarding schools I obtained from Lindsay Anderson’s “If….”. It came out just after I had left school and made me think, “Gosh, I wish I’d been to a proper school”. There was considerably less bullying than at my secondary modern, for a start. Amusingly, Anderson was hoping for the opposite effect.

  • If child survivors of the Bosnian war grow up to lead normal lives (and the social scientists find they do) then I’m not sure that anything that normally goes on at a boarding school or summer camp or foster home or whatever is likely to really have much impact one way or the other. The problem isn’t one form of pedagogy versus another, it’s the ridiculous Marxist notion that children are blank slates that can be manipulated into what their manipulators want. It’s why the Guardios are so obsessed by the topic and it’s not true. Even 24X7 raving loony left indoctrination can’t persuade normal children to grow up Marxist Leninist. Ask any Cuban.

    Reality is just so much more persuasive than revolutionary fantasy.

  • Unlike most others in this comment thread, I do have experience with boarding school — seven years at a strict church-directed boys-only school in a conservative society qualifies — and allow me to say that for a journalist (with no experience thereof) shouldn’t say shit about boarding schools. Do all kids thrive? Of course not, just as not everyone thrives in any social setting. But boarding schools do really well at instilling values in a child — I adhere to them to this day, some forty-odd years later — and what upsets the hell out of the Leftist nomenklatura is that the values are not their values. Hitler banned parochial boarding schools in Germany for precisely that reason.

    But they can’t say that, of course; so they cloak their antipathy in feigned concern about the “welfare” of the children (adding spurious guilt feelings to the mix for good measure).

    What’s really interesting that Napoleon (surely the primo statist of all time) recognized that the Church instils societal values better than the State ever could, which is why he mandated that primary education be run by the Church, and secondary by the State. It’s only the modern statists who want to own the serfs I mean citizens from cradle to grave.

  • Paul Marks

    A lot of interesting comments.