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Whatever the Question is, Boarding School is not the Answer

09/02/2015 14:52 GMT | Updated 10/04/2015 10:59 BST

New research suggests that where so-called 'disadvantaged' children are sent to boarding school, not all of them are served particularly well by it. Only those who were academically stronger to start with improve. This is heralded by some as a mark of success, presumably those with a Boris Johnson-esque social Darwinist outlook, but for the majority of us it must surely be seen as further evidence that we should question the wisdom of sending such youngsters to such institutions. Although I would argue that most of the questions we need to ask cannot be answered in such tangible terms as academic results.

As someone who spends her time campaigning against the practice of sending children to boarding school I face many challenges in my work. One of the things I struggle with most is the people who tell me that they had to go to boarding school because their parents, usually their mothers, couldn't cope, or that their lives were so difficult at home then life at school was a relief, an escape. What do I say then? That I am sorry for what they have been though, that I am glad they had a positive experience of their education, but dare I venture that I'm not sure there shouldn't have been other systems in place to help them, other solutions?

I remember one such conversation with a friend of mine. I hope I never get used to the kind of artfully suppressed pain he faintly displayed as he told me of how he had had to leave home at eight because his family would not have been able to manage; that spooked, haunted look you catch right at the back of the eyes of so many ex-boarders which seems to simultaneously say 'please give me a cuddle' and 'please don't ever give me a cuddle'. For once I was bolder than usual: Would you not have preferred someone to help your mother? I asked. 'There wasn't the same idea of what it was to be a mother or what it was to be a child back then' he said. But the point is, we know different now don't we? We know that children are important, that parents are important, that love is important don't we?

It must surely be time to move on from this anachronistic, condescending paternalism, so neatly reflected in phrases such as 'disadvantaged', 'deprived' and 'from challenging backgrounds'. This becomes a story of removing people and making them different, not helping them where they are. And only in tiny numbers. For example, the Springboard foundation aims to have 120 'deprived' students in boarding schools next year. But estimates from Women's aid suggest that 103 children are turned away from refuges every day. Even if this is a good idea, it is a poorly applied sticking plaster on a great big gaping wound.

And it is this wound that we need to examine. If children are suffering because children are scapegoated as the vulnerable people we can lay our anger, insecurities and frustrations upon then surely we must challenge anything which negatively reflects the value of childhood. Much as we challenge cruelty to women by attempting to challenge that which objectifies and commodifies women, we must challenge mistreatment of children by attacking that which objectifies and commodifies them, and boarding schools certainly do. And how much of the suffering is caused by poverty and the hopelessness of a repulsively unequal society, with no social mobility? And are elite schools themselves not only beacons of inequality but bastions of immobility?

The schools would of course argue not. Indeed, the presence of 'disadvantaged' pupils is cited as evidence of commitment to social mobility and diversity, and such funded places are used to justify the existence of boarding schools, and also the massive tax breaks they enjoy. But this is a tiny, tiny part of the boarding school picture and bursaries for boarding schools can be extended to those earning as much as £80,000 per year. You can even hire someone to help you find a bursary for around £200 per hour. We must take care that we are not being duped here.

Even if my understanding of the economics of the situation is faulty, even if my reasoning about social mobility and social justice is flawed, this much I know for certain: children need to be raised in homes by people who love them. If their own homes are not like that, then everything must be done to restore the loving environment, or a more loving environment should be found, not farmed out to tick a good deeds box on a school-master's funding spread sheet. And we must all ask ourselves what we can do in our politics and our communities to help all children receive the dignity and love they deserve. This is simple truth-telling, but simple truth-telling is not always as simple as it should be. Love does not usually find a place in formal and official discourse: to mention love is to cast oneself as sentimental, idealist, not grounded in how 'the real world works'. But then official discourse is very often shaped by those who left home as small children, so I suppose they need to keep the issue pretty deeply buried.