school

The secret life of students inside a prestigious Australian private boarding school.

When I was ten years old, I sat a scholarship exam at a prestigious private school.

Built around a bay, the senior campus had looked particularly spectacular that sunny morning in October.

Boats from the sailing club bobbed about on the azure water and the bright-green cricket grounds had been recently rolled. From the pavilion boys in whites waited for play to start, while girls with flowing blonde hair made their way to the far-off tennis courts.

It was like something out of an Evelyn Waugh novel, or a dream – it certainly appeared to be a place where dreams came true. It hardly seemed possible that this serene paradise was a school, and that if I was very lucky I could become one of its students.

“It was like something out of an Evelyn Waugh novel, or a dream.”

Now the wish I made to win that scholarship seems more like a Faustian pact.

For though I have many great memories – as well as proud achievements – I have come to realise that my experiences there had a profound effect on me. With the expectation that this education would expand my horizons, it seemed to only narrow the focus of experience, and the dynamics of the friendships that were formed there – some of them bullying – continued into my adult life.

Related: This anti-bullying video has one powerful message: Be nice. Now.

Take my year in the bush at the outdoor-education campus, famed for its hiking and cross-country running programs.

There were no amenities in the wooden house I lived in with fifteen other girls. No heating or cooling; no television, Internet, laptop or mobile phones.

We lived in this house on our own: our housemistress lived down the road, out of sight and out of earshot. And while the principles driving this self-regulation were well intentioned (to encourage us to grow in confidence and self-determination), the results were disastrous.

Homesick, afraid and desperate to fit in, I found myself drawn to the dominant girls. And – to my horror – I found myself participating in bullying, which was rife in our house.

“There were no amenities in the wooden house I lived in with fifteen other girls.”

Before I went to boarding school, I’d always been a good girl. Now I found myself intoxicated by this freedom – and by this power.

Now that I look back on it, the aggression in our house seemed inevitable: a mix of powerful girls, some with a history of bullying, living with some of our year group’s most vulnerable, in an isolated bush setting, spending hours and hours unsupervised.

And, of course, later in the year, the same friends I had aligned myself with began to bully me. It is a common pattern – so much of girls’ bullying occurs within the tight friendship circle.

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But it wasn’t overt aggression. The friendships I had formed were, almost overnight, withdrawn, without explanation. Girls bully with frightening efficiency – for is there anything more devastating than when a friend turns her back on you?

The pain I suffered when these friendships cooled was extraordinary. I went off my food; I couldn’t sleep. I found myself constantly on edge, and at times paranoid. This lasted for months, but I had no way of talking about it.

It isn’t easy to admit to having been bullied. It isn’t easy to admit that I bullied other girls, either. Both carry with them particular types of stigma and shame, which only as an adult have I come to understand and process.

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After that year in the bush, I was a ‘day boarder’ at the senior school campus. This meant I participated in the same program as the boarders (including eating lunch and dinner in the dining hall), except I slept at home during the week and on weekends.

“I didn’t know how to talk to someone I hadn’t spent every waking moment with for the past four years.”

Each morning I woke up at 6am to catch the bus so I would arrive for rollcall at 8.15am. I didn’t leave school until 8.30pm each night, which meant I often arrived home after 10pm.

After school each day were sports’ practice and activities, as well as evening ‘prep’, which was homework undertaken in our day houses under the supervision of prefects and tutors.

On Saturdays, competition sport was compulsory and usually lasted most of the day. Sundays, I recall, were mostly spent catching up on sleep.

As you can imagine, it was a cloistered environment where school dominated your consciousness. I didn’t have the opportunity to see much of my family, let alone socialise with anyone new.

But I wasn’t aware of the degree of my institutionalisation until I went to university.

Those years, supposedly the best of your life, were in fact my most lonely and unhappy. I’d never learned how to integrate with people from different backgrounds; I didn’t know how to talk to someone I hadn’t spent every waking moment with for the past four years.

I found it impossible to come out of my shell. I just didn’t know how to make new friends.

“Those years, supposedly the best of your life, were in fact my most lonely and unhappy.”

More and more Australian parents are sending their children to private schools. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of students attending non-government schools increased by nearly 2 per cent from 2012 to 2013. In NSW alone, there was an increase of ten per cent.

To even contemplate sending my children to private school seems like more of a dream than the one I had to win the scholarship all those years ago. Fees to my alma mater, for instance, currently cost half my annual salary (plus more than $20,000 in boarding costs). Private schooling is a huge financial burden placed both on the family, and the child.

Related: Sending your kids to private school now costs more than a house. Ouch.

There are, of course, many benefits to sending your children to private school – and to boarding school, too. And every family’s decision to send children away is different. Some live overseas with no viable alternative; some live in remote parts of Australia. Some are upholding a family tradition. And some simply perceive private education as better than public education. With funding for non-government schools growing at a faster rate than public schools, this perception may well be soon entrenched beyond repair.

Rebecca Starford – “I’d like to sound caution, based on my own experiences.” Image via Twitter.

Graham Greene once said of boarding school: ‘Unhappiness in a child accumulates because he sees no end to the dark tunnel. The thirteen weeks of a term might just as well be thirteen years.’

Every child is different. Some adapt more readily to these old-fashioned regimens; some make friends easily at all stages of their lives.

But I’d like to sound caution, based on my own experiences: Be mindful of your child’s personality before sending them away and think carefully about how this environment might impact their development. Despite the all-consuming nature of their education, they may well carry loneliness around with them for many years to come.

Rebecca Starford is the author of Bad Behaviour: A Memoir of Bullying and Boarding School (Allen & Unwin).