Boarding is as damaging as being taken into care, says therapist

Children sent away to boarding school can suffer psychological damage akin to being taken into care, a leading psychotherapist warns. "Boarding School Syndrome" can leave adults struggling to form intimate relationships and unable to communicate emotions after being traumatised by forced separation from friends and family at a young age.

Despite the damage, therapists fail to recognise the significance of boarding school in their patients' problems because such an education is still regarded as a character-forming privilege, according to Professor Joy Schaverien in next month's British Journal of Psychotherapy.

But no matter how privileged the surroundings or wonderful the education, children who board are left in the care of adults who do not love them – itself deeply traumatising, she warns. And many children in the past suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse from staff or other children, and had no refuge or loved one to confide in. Isolated and confused, children learn to hide how they feel, and "get on with it" – becoming outwardly confident and successful but emotionally retarded adults.

James Taylor, 44, a psychotherapist himself, suffered sexual and physical abuse at boarding school from the age of 10. "I had no trust in authority for years," he said.

Professor Schaverien, who identified the syndrome after 30 years of treating former boarders, said: "Children need to grow among people who love them... Things have improved but children are still exposed to regimented lifestyles, loneliness and separation. They often turn into very successful adults – look at the current Cabinet – but they can suffer from a poverty of emotion which deserves attention... Prep school is pretty much bad for everyone; it is not loving to send a young child away."

More than 72,000 children boarded last year; around 20 per cent were 12 or younger, but the number of very young children boarding has declined steeply. In 1996 501 children aged between four and seven boarded, but that fell to 170 last year.

Hilary Moriarty, director of the Boarding Schools' Association (BSA), believes things have improved immeasurably since the introduction of inspections 10 years ago, and that boarding school is best for some children. "I don't think you would find a single unhappy boarder now because children wouldn't stay and parents would not keep them there," she said.

According to the BSA, family tradition is still important, but many children now board because parents – working long hours – don't have the time to spend with them during the week.