Boarding schools should be banned from admitting young children, say campaigners. They say sending children away from their parents is mentally damaging and outdated.
In a letter to Sunday's Observer, more than 25 signatories – including psychoanalyst Dr Susie Orbach, Labour MP Barry Sheerman, writer AL Kennedy and film-maker Don Boyd – say boarding is detrimental to children's wellbeing and can lead to emotional deprivation.
Boarding schools are proving increasingly popular with UK parents and the number of boarders has been slowly rising year on year, even throughout the recession, while other private schools have seen their numbers fall slightly.
Around 69,000 pupils currently have boarding places at independent schools, which on average cost £25,000 a year. There are also 5,000 children at England's state boarding schools.
A number of psychiatrists and former boarders believe the practice of sending children away from their homes leaves them damaged.
Sally Fraser of Boarding School Action, who helped organise the letter, says her husband has been affected by 'boarding school syndrome.
She said: "It's this attitude that children have to be rushed through to adulthood.
"The parents think they are doing the right thing and think the children are coping, when in fact the kids are just kept incredibly busy so they don't feel sad.
It's an adapt-and-survive environment. It's seen as awful that we have to have kids in care, but we are happily allowing this to go on, just to a different socioeconomic group.
The letter follows an article in last week's Observer Magazine by journalist Alex Renton about abuse and neglect and the 'no-hugs' culture in boarding schools, drawing on his own experience.
Ray McGovern, chairman of the Boarding Schools Association – which is holding its annual conference in Glasgow on Monday – said that he had enormous sympathy with any adult who had had a dreadful experience as a boarder, but that today's schools are very different to those of the past.
He said: "Children are not being 'sent away'; they are going to enjoy an education, opportunities and facilities second to none because their parents want the best for them.
"Even a seven-year-old going into a boarding environment can be enriched by it.
"Nowadays children are part of the decision-making to go to a boarding school, and schools will make sure the child's wishes are being taken into account before they admit them, as well as making sure they have the resilience to cope with the boarding environment.
"Any parent who comes in saying their child needs a bit of 'toughening up' will have it explained to them that that is not what boarding is all about."
Dr Andrew Samuels, a psychotherapist at Essex University, said: "Boarding schools are disruptive to family relationships. Children learn that sense of having to pull themselves together and be happy boarders; otherwise, of course, there would be outbreaks of hysteria.
"They can't understand despair or empathise with others as adults because that just wasn't on the menu for them as children."
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