‘Boarding School Syndrome’

Boarding school  syndrome’ was the title of an insightful article from the UK ‘Guardian’, sent to me by my London-based sister last year. It got me thinking, or more accurately remembering things I’ve tried to erase from my memory.

Written by a leading psychologist, the article detailed the ongoing effects of abuses suffered by her clients, decades earlier at boarding school. The fact that many leading UK politicians, especially members of the Conservative Party, had in some cases at least, spent many of their formative years at boarding school, was also noted.

Boarding school was where I spent the three most miserable years of my life. While it’s now over 50 years ago, memories of the pain I suffered remain raw to this day.

When I was interviewed live on Radio New Zealand some years ago, shortly after the publication of my 2001 ‘NZ Civil Rights Handbook’, I was asked where my interest in civil rights began. I indicated that it began at boarding school.

“Why there?”, asked the interviewer. “Because of the abuses – physical, sexual, emotional – I witnessed (and in some cases, was a victim of); together with the obvious complicity of those obligated to protect the vulnerable residents” I told him.

The next question was an obvious one – “So, were you ever sexually abused?”

“No I wasn’t but I certainly witnessed it” (And I had  – for example, younger boys being forced to have oral sex with older boys)’.

The interviewer persisted. “And why not you?” He appeared taken aback by my answer.

“Because I was good at sport. I was the junior tennis champion. Boys who were good at sport were protected by senior boys, because they were seen as having the potential to bring kudos to the school”.

I went on to explain that growing up in the ’50s, and addicted to a weekly dose of new WW2 comics, I had a very clear idea of who the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ were. The latter were the ‘Japs and the Jerries’. Those from good old Great Britain and its past and present colonies, together with the US, were the ‘goodies’.

At boarding school I was forced to confront an inconvenient truth. The ‘baddies’ (the abusers and bullies), were fellow sons of NZ’s provincial middle-class, albeit a few years older.

The school lacked any half-decent forms of protection for victims of that abuse or bullying, or any system of accountability for the perpetrators. No-one appeared to care. The shameful practices were simply part and  parcel of boarding school life.

Victims were effectively defenceless. This may help explain my obsession with the establishment of meaningful forms of legal accountability throughout my professional career.   At that time, (the early-to-mid 60s), abuse in its myriad forms didn’t rate a mention. Bullying may have been present, but surviving it was seen as part of the path to manhood.

I remember my dad telling me that boarding school would help make a man of me. How would he know? He never went there.  These days, determining what constitutes bullying, as opposed to abuse, is not easy. Perhaps abuse covers it all?

Time for a few examples: In the dormitory, if someone did something wrong and didn’t own up, everyone in the dorm paid the price. We were forced to crawl through the legs of the house prefects, while they whacked us with their slippers. A clever choice. It left no clearly identifiable mark.

Being forced to box with someone, as a form of amusement for the senior boarders, was not uncommon. Unlike my opponent, I didn’t have a clue. He knocked me to the hard floor of the changing room. Everyone roared their approval. No one came to my aid.

A form of initiation involved being forced to try and shave with a piece of cut glass – with predictable bleeding. As a consequence I later developed an aversion to shaving. This may help explain why I’ve had a beard through my adulthood.

Older boys having forced sexual intercourse ( rape), with younger boys did occur. Two of the toilets were the usual venue. I never witnessed it, but I have no doubt it did happen.  Over the years I’ve wondered on occasions what the effect has been on those victims of what we now call sexual violation. How has it affected them as men, as husbands or partners, as fathers?

During those miserable three years, I had no awareness that what was going on was sexual abuse, plain and simple.  It would never have occurred to me that what some of the senior boys were doing, constituted a serious criminal offence.

Talk about breathtaking naivety. Such were the times. In the polite, provincial middle-class circles that I grew up in, it was all  left unspoken. In recent years, after one powerful institution after another has been wracked with allegations of systemic sexual abuse, I have found myself saying – ‘when are the boarding schools going to get done over? Surely their ‘dark secrets’ must be exposed?!

One major hurdle may be that shameful abuses undoubtedly went on at every male boarding school at the time. That’s certainly been  what I’ve heard  from fellow former ‘inmates’ of other schools.

I look back,  sometimes in anger but mostly with relief for one reason: I was lucky.


  • Tim McBride is a human rights lawyer, advocate and commentator. He is  the principal author of the  ‘NZ Civil Rights Handbook’.  During his academic career, he  taught at  law schools in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States.
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Tim McBride

Human rights author and commentator