“Have you tried boarding?”

A still from a TV drama in which a man has his hands over his son's eyes in what looks like a school corridor. (He uncovers them shortly afterwards.)
Scene from Channel 4’s Kid in the Corner, a drama about ADHD in which Alex (front) ends up in a boarding school.

The other day a parent I follow on my social media, whose autistic daughter has been out of school for much of the past several years, mentioned a programme that was on Radio 4 last week about children who simply refuse to go to school. Something that was said in the programme (which I have not yet listened to) which has also been said to her was the suggestion that she “try boarding”. This was presented as a “happy ending” in a British TV drama (which may have been Kid in the Corner) about ADHD a few years ago (and the dad drove through the night to walk into his son’s dormitory and give him a hug while he was in bed). As someone who spent three and a half years in one as a teenager, I feel very strongly that boarding schools are not the answer to children’s problems which arise only at school, and where the child has a stable and supportive family. They are also a trap which, once a family falls in, they may find it extremely difficult to get out of.

A few years ago the blogger Steph Nimmo, whose daughter Daisy had a genetic disorder that resulted in very severe physical health needs, announced that she had started the process to move Daisy into a ‘residential’ school. (Incidentally, with all the revelations about abuse in ‘residential’ schools for Native children in Canada, I find it strange that this term is preferred here over ‘boarding’ because it sounds nicer or more home-ish, when the schools are often anything but.) I commented (though all the comments have now disappeared, so this is an expanded version) that she should consider, before choosing any boarding school, what she would do if the school proved not to be right, if her daughter was not thriving, was losing abilities or was obviously suffering, or was distressed in the presence of certain staff members or before returning to the school after a holiday or family visit, or if the management changed or there was a substantial turnover of staff and the quality of care deteriorated, after she had dispensed with the care arrangements and laid off the carers and maybe got a job or got on a college course. In other words, it would be a lot harder to go back to the current situation after making such a big change than it would be to keep things the way they are. In the event she reconsidered the ‘residential’ option but sadly Daisy died a couple of months later.

Even for a child without such needs, a boarding school is a pig in a poke; you will never see what goes on when your back is turned, which means the entirety of their interaction with other pupils and staff. An adult could be quite personable when talking to other adults but show a quite different face to children they are not accountable to. The leadership may be well aware of a bullying culture but keep it under wraps when trying to sell the school to you, the parent, or suggest that the problems may affect them anywhere they go. The disruptive child, the one likely to swear loudly or “kick off” at the dinner table, might well have been taken to eat on their own. Normally violent staff will be on their best behaviour (and even though physical punishment is illegal, staff can get away with it by presenting their assaults as restraint and exaggerating the severity of your child’s behaviour). Maybe you promise your child that if the school isn’t right for them, they can come home - but are you willing to keep your promise? Not every parent would.

Boarding schools by nature cannot accommodate a child’s individual needs and sometimes they do not even try. They may force your child to give up their main hobby or a class they take out of school (e.g. learning a musical instrument) if it is inconvenient for them or does not fit in with their routine. If there are several pupils to a room, how will they accommodate the fact that one might prefer the light off, while others will want a dim light, while others might need a light mobile or some other sensory aid? In a family your child is one of two or three children, maybe four or five, and you know their needs and you know how best to make sure your children can live together. Your children are brothers and sisters and have a love for each other and will not want to hurt each other; this may not be true of children who are strangers thrown together in a dormitory (staff, however professional they may be, are not their parents and do not love your children either). A boarding school may just expect your child to “just fit in” if they arrive in the middle of a school year or favour tougher children because it’s easier than bringing them to heel. That scene at the end of Kid in the Corner was wholly unrealistic; a father doing that may have exposed his son to difficulty in an environment where, especially for boys, showing emotions and being a “mummy’s boy” are ridiculed.

A further thing to consider especially if your child’s special needs are to do with their behaviour is that there is a school-to-institution pipeline and your child may be transferred into the mental health or ATU system which you will have no control over. I have heard of this happening on a number of occasions in recent times; one was a 13-year-old boy who had autism and Tourette’s syndrome whose father had recently suffered a life-changing injury, who was sectioned and transferred at short notice to a psychiatric institution hundreds of miles away where there were also children who had been placed there on hospital orders by the courts; in another recent case a young man was sectioned when he was 18 and his time at the school was nearing its end; it took more than a year to release him (into a ‘bespoke’ living arrangement that was effectively a care home). This has happened to young autistic people in day schools as well, but if the school is a boarding school, there is considerably more opportunity for this course of action and it may result from the stresses of being in a boarding school, being separated from family, being surrounded by school ‘mates’ and other trappings of school at times when your child should be at home. Even if the school is excellent, similar things may happen if the funding for the chosen school is suddenly cut; you may have to find an alternative at short notice if you cannot just quit that job you started after sending your child away, and the alternative may be somewhere that does not even attempt to cater to their needs in the way you did or the school did. (See the tragic case of Nico Reed for a case in point.)

Finally: a boarding school is a boarding school. The biggest drawback of any boarding school is that they separate children from their families, and the child will not see their family for days or possibly weeks at a time. If your child cannot tolerate the rigours of school for six or seven hours a day, it is not rational to presume that they will be able to tolerate them for several days or weeks at a time. If your child is bullied at a day school, they will have a refuge from them at home; at a boarding school, they will have to eat their breakfast and evening meal with them, shower naked with them, do any evening activities with them, sleep in the same room as them (or at least a room that is easily accessible to them). They will be going from a small family unit where they are a loved, integral member to a loveless institutional environment where they are one of dozens of children the staff have to look after because it is their job. Some of these staff may be decent, but they are free to leave any time they like. If the reason is that they cannot tolerate the school’s violent and/or unfriendly atmosphere, their washing their hands of the situation does not help your child.

In short, don’t. No child who has a stable and settled family and is not persistently violent to their parents or siblings should ever be threatened with boarding because of problems that emanate entirely from school. Your child has a right to their family, their own bed, their own home; separating a child from these things for no good reason is enough of an abuse, before you even look at the details of a boarding school’s regime. At the very least, you must be prepared to pull your child out if they make it clear they are unhappy being there because of bullying or other abuse or if it is an unfriendly place they show obvious distress at going back to, whether this is immediate or following a change of personnel; do not make excuses, tell them they have to “keep their head down” or “find ways of dealing with it” or that this is “just the way of the world” or, worst of all, their fault. If someone misses school or does not attend much school for a few years, this is not the end of the world and they may be able to catch up later, even if it requires more commitment to gain qualifications as an adult; they will, however, have the advantage of no trauma and being able to trust you, which they will not if you put them in an abusive environment and turn a deaf ear when they turn to you for help.

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