Tilda Swinton: Children don’t ‘benefit’ from posh boarding-school educations

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Everyone knows that Tilda Swinton is super-posh, right? We think of her these days as a weird alien-unicorn fully enmeshed in the avant-garde artsy-hipster life, but her upbringing was the same as many of the daughters of nobility. She actually went to boarding school with the then-Lady Diana Spencer, and by Tilda’s own accounts, she was expected to be poshly-well-educated and then marry someone with a title. In the years since then, she’s obviously gone on a different path, and she wants her twin sons to also have an individual, un-posh path. While many teenage boys with posh backgrounds would likely go to school at Eton or Harrow, Tilda enrolled her sons at a makeshift school she and some of her friends started in Scotland. The school sounds like a hippie fantasy – there are no grades, no desks and no tests. Now Tilda is talking about how she hates the very posh-British way of educating kids, which is basically to ship them off to boarding school when they’re like eight years old.

Actress Tilda Swinton criticised the Harry Potter films for romanticising the ‘cruel’ boarding school experience. The star, 56, who boarded at the exclusive West Heath Girls’ School, in Sevenoaks, Kent, said it can be harmful to separate children from their parents at a young age. She added that she did not believe children ‘benefit’ from a boarding school education.

The actress told The Scots Magazine: ‘I think they are a very cruel setting in which to grow up and I don’t feel children benefit from that type of education. Children need their parents. That’s why I dislike films like Harry Potter, which tend to romanticise such places.’

Swinton’s experience of West Heath, where she was a classmate of Princess Diana, led her to setting up a liberal independent school near her home in Nairn, Scotland. Drumduan Upper School, which opened in 2013, has no tests or exams and students spend their days building boats and planting trees rather than sitting behind desks.

She added: ‘I grew up under privileged circumstances and was expected to marry a duke. I spent a lot of time and energy making certain that I would not find myself living a life that had been preordained for me.’

[From The Daily Mail]

Some people believe shipping kids off to boarding school is a great way to do things, and some don’t. I do tend to think of it as a cultural thing and it’s one of the big differences between how Americans view education versus how Europeans view it. There simply isn’t the same boarding-school tradition here in the US. While there are posh boarding schools here, even the wealthiest and poshest kids tend to stay at home and go to posh, exclusive day schools. But do we romanticize boarding schools? I don’t know. I think it’s a problem for Britain that Eton and Harrow-educated men basically run every part of British society. It does not speak to diversity of opinion, diversity of education, diversity of background. But that’s not the school’s fault.

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84 Responses to “Tilda Swinton: Children don’t ‘benefit’ from posh boarding-school educations”

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  1. SnazzyisAlive says:

    I think every child is different. My cousins went to boarding school – loved every minute of it.
    Also, am I the only one finding Tilda more and more annoying these days? I did not like her in Doctor Strange and she has been pissing me off in the last few interviews. Maybe it’s just me though…

    • Megan says:

      I thought she totally phoned it in on Dr. Strange. Still liked the movie, but found her disappointing.

      I don’t have kids and I didn’t go to boarding school, so I have no opinion on the matter accept to say that if I had gotten an acceptance letter to Hogwarts, I would have been the first kid on the train.

    • Birdix says:

      And I have a friend who was adopted and her new parents divorced. Boarding school was a huge relief for her, so much better than shuttling between two households.

      • ellen says:

        That is exactly the problem. The parents could not find a way to deal with the divorce in a manner so that the child was not uncomfortable. Then the parents relinquished their responsibility to find a solution and shipped the child off to boarding school Boarding schools are always fun and great for kids who have a crap home life, ie situations where parents are not involved enough, do not engage their children enough, are assholes to their kids, have no idea how to raise their kids, are too tired or busy to raise their kids. It’s a freaking orphanage for rich people. You pay someone else to raise your child. Anytime someone says, “my friend went and she loved it,”, I know it is because their home alternative was crap. I am not saying that they were beaten or neglected at home, I am just saying that the parents dropped the ball on responsibility.

    • Rae says:

      Agreed about boarding schools; children can thrive at them, as they’ve long since been the archaic institutions that people still try to paint them as.

      I remember pleading with my parents to send me to a boarding school that I desperately wanted to go to.

  2. Becky says:

    From a psychological POV I agree with her, I think its damaging for children to be sent to boarding school and separated from their parents. Also I have a friend who went to boarding school and was badly bullied which traumatised him.

    Not regarding the standard of education though which is obviously much higher. Public schools in particular (in the U.K. definition that’s strictly only 6 schools) give you a massive advantage to get into Oxbridge.

    I have extended family members who went to private schools, though they didn’t board. One got into Cambridge, got a very good job where she met her high-flying husband, the other got a First and is now also minted.

    • LAK says:

      I generally think that’s only true depending on how the child adapts to boarding school. Some kids thrive and some kids do not.

      I come from a community that ALWAYS sends their kids to boarding school and because that’s the norm, the kids simply get on with it. And everyone remains involved, connected and close to the kids because they check up on them all the time rather than waiting until dessignated holidays/ passes before reconnecting with their kids. No one feels abandoned nor are they left to feel that way.

      Finally, bullying is prevalent in all schools, day and boarding. Ditto the extent and potential to traumatise the victims.

      • Becky says:

        Lak, true about the bullying aspect, I always got the impression it was endemic at boarding school (btw this was one of the military schools in Sandhurst), though I didn’t go to one this is what a friend has told me.

      • LAK says:

        Sandhurst has had lots of bullying scandals which are the stuff of nightmares, but at the end of the day i often wonder whether the fact that it’s a military school is the reason. Lots of bullying in the military.

        That said, Boarding schools have dickensian reputation which makes it easy to believe the worst stories as far as student care, but that is not true anymore.

        As Sixer says downthread, pastoral care is so effectively given that the kids are in danger of being better parented by the school than their own parents.

      • sienna says:

        100% agree LAK. My hubby boarded from the age of 7 and thrived. The friends he made there are the closest people in the world to us. His sisters, however, did not fair nearly as well. From my experience choosing the right school for each child is very important, even if siblings are separated from each other in their upper years.

        That said, my girls will remain day students for the duration of their education, although we too have put them in an independent school.

      • Birdix says:

        My kid is dying to go to boarding school, but because the particular boarding school she wants (after going to a summer session there) is on the other side of the planet, I’ve said no, crushing her dreams. She’ll be gone so soon anyhow! Although there are moments that I see the appeal-living with a teen is no picnic.

      • Bitchy says:

        “effectiv pastoral care”?
        Do the math and estimate how many of the teachers are at the school after classes and then you get the pupil-teacher ratio and that is worse than any parent-child ratio of children who stay at home.
        Oh, and nearly all parents go the extra mile whereas pastoral care does not. See sociological research.

      • LAK says:

        Bitchy: teachers are there to teach not provide pastoral care. To that end, it’s not a big deal if they aren’t present after school hours.

        Pastoral care teams are there to provide emotional, spiritual, parenting care for students. They are present 24/7 and live with the students, a team per house on campus during term time. The number of students per house is small enough not to overwhelm. When i was at school, it was 30 students per house and a resident team of 4 pastoral carers to each house.

        There can be cross-overs where some teachers are also pastoral carers, but for the most part the two teams are separate and have different functions in school life.

      • ellen says:

        This is what people who send their children to boarding school tell themselves. They rationalize it, they associate with other parents who rationalize it, they tell stories about how they are just as involved in their child’s life as others and that their kids are so happy. Children who are abused at home will often defend their parents to others. Children have no idea what is good for themselves. Children often lie unknowingly and hide their feelings and say what they feel they are supposed to say. Sending a child under the age of 16 to a boarding school is cruel, irresponsible and against human nature. Under age 11 is horrifying.

    • WeAreAllMadeOfStars says:

      Agreed. It’s a relic of the past that was romanticized at a time when it was recommended by psychologists that you shake your child’s hand and not hug them in order not to spoil them.

      I worked at a boarding school in Asia that boarded children as young as two and three. There were always students in the Kindergarten that cried the whole year through even though they went home on weekends. Mondays were always a tear fest of readjustment. Although most of them seemed reasonably well-adjusted, I witnessed many meltdowns throughout the years that made me believe that it was mostly surface adjustment.

      And yes, the schools obviously play an entrenched role in the boarding school to boardroom culture. Why there should be an apologia about that I have no idea.

  3. Alix says:

    I’ve always thought it seemed rather cruel to send kids (especially young ones) away from home for their education. My prep school had the remnants of a boarding program and I always felt sorry for the girls who lived there — did their families not want them? I wondered.

    But I say, leave Hogwarts out of this. Magical boarding schools are magical, period.

    • Nicole says:

      I agree and it’s why my parents didn’t send me to the boarding school I received a scholarship from to attend. I was 5 when I was offered admission and even though it wasn’t far (I think CT or MA and we lived in NYC) my mother was worried about how I would cope away from my parents. So home I stayed

    • sienna says:

      My hubby found that boarding at 7 was easy, it was all he knew and it was fun to be with all these other kids. It got much harder as he aged, realized most kids live at home, and he started missing his family more.

    • Snowflake says:

      It just seems weird to me too. Like, why would you have kids to send them off and let someone else raise them? There are great schools you can send your kids to and they can stay at home. I don’t get it. Like I can’t imagine being 7 and scared in bed at night and not having mom or dad there to comfort me.

      • WeAreAllMadeOfStars says:

        Exactly. And God forbid you hate school. At that point you’re just waiting for the relief of coming home, engaging in other activities in an environment to which you feel better suited, and having friendships with people of different ages or backgrounds who don’t attend your school. And yes, boarding school provides a 24 hour opportunity to be in the crosshairs of a bully.

  4. Zapp Brannigan says:

    So on Planet Tilda boarding schools are bad for kids and Roman Polanski is a-OK around kids.

    • MrsBPitt says:

      And WTF kind of career, will these kids have, from “building boats, and planting trees”. I mean, unless, it’s a career where they build boats or plant trees! But, even then, some good, old fashioned math would come in handy!

      • Birdix says:

        And that’s the tricky part–not that traditional school always works, but these seem to be designed for kids who don’t have to worry about money.

      • Lyka says:

        You need a lot of good old fashioned math to build boats! It’s very instructive for kids to use hands-on projects in their learning, and boat building requires a tremendous amount of attention to detail, geometry and arithmetic skills, and peer-to-peer collaboration. All quite sensible skills to take to college and/or the workplace.

        But I do take your point that Tilda’s no-grades institution sounds a bit flighty compared to the education system I’m used to :)

    • Timbuktu says:

      That’s the beauty of being rich. You can get a stellar education and throw it all away for an artistic career – you know you have a safety net that will catch you if you fall.
      Or you can get no education at all and become a photographer for Burberry at 17.

  5. COSquared says:

    Eh, that ‘school’ sounds like it’s meant for kids whose parents are rich hippies. Those kids would have enough money to build boats instead of catching an education.

    • Birdix says:

      Ah, yes agreed, just commented above. You’re absolutely right. And that’s why the early curriculum of posh American private schools is often less rigorous or at very least has far less homework than their public counterparts.

    • valkenburg says:

      Exactly! Only the very wealthy can afford to poo-poo things such as grades and academic achievement! And FYI, I call bs on Tilda’s “was expected to marry a Duke”. Her family is not aristocratic. Her father was a General but mother was Australian, and although the family is “old” (these sorts of things matter in the U.K) they were certainly not aristocratic.

  6. Sixer says:

    Typical posh blinkers from Tilda, really.

    Firstly, even crusty old institutions like British public schools have moved with the times. Very few prep schools board these days so you’re only talking of high schoolers who are not living with parents.

    Secondly, it’s not Tom Brown’s Schooldays any more. These schools are very, very nurturing environments. I should know: I went to one. Pastoral care was endless (I found it quite suffocating, actually and went home every weekend so that I could enjoy being treated with benign neglect by my parents.)

    Thirdly, as you say Kaiser, all of this pales into insignificance compared to the social networks developed, which sustain these children throughout their adult lives and yes, do ensure that they dominate every high level in society from government to the arts.

    I think there are issues with sending children away to school that many parents might not want to take on and I say good for those parents. You should parent as you see fit. But it’s disingenuous of Tilda to suggest that the disadvantages of the British public school system for the children in it aren’t far, far, far outweighed by the lifelong advantages it confers.

    • LAK says:

      Lol…benign neglect by parents 😂

      • Sixer says:

        I think benign neglect is an excellent principle for parenting! My mum and dad would pay you attention if you asked for it but otherwise, they’d leave you alone to get on with it. They never assumed I needed to be entertained, you know?

      • LAK says:

        I really enjoyed the holidays for this reason. If anything, my parents insisted we not bore THEM when they paid attention.

        I think that’s where my Katie Bucket animus comes from. I heartily dislike beige, quiet people. I don’t ask for esoteric interests or conversation, just don’t be beige and quiet and FGS get. on.with. it!!!

      • Megan says:

        Maybe I will change my job title from Indolent Manager to Benign Neglector. My management philosophy is that any situation left unattended long enough will resolve itself.

      • Sixer says:

        LAK – I think my school basically did helicopter parenting. And at the weekend, I was all, “Look, I did debating on Tuesday night and netball on Thursday night. Now it’s Saturday and I want to read my book. Why do all you relentlessly cheerful pastoral folk keep on trying to get me to do joining-in stuff that ISN’T READING MY BOOK?” I basically went home for weekends more often than everyone else so that I could be left in peace to read!

        Megan – I concur. Most non-emergency situations resolve themselves if you read your book for long enough!

      • Miss Jupitero says:

        Benign neglect was pretty much par for the course in my free range childhood. I attribute my insanely stubborn independence to its influence. I think being left to figure things out for yourself is in itself a wonderful education. That said, my friends and I did some incredibly dangerous things while our parents were off having cocktails, so I can see both sides.

        We live in different times. My best friend from college is now sending her daughters to St Paul’s School now– one of the poshest schools that exist in the US– and they are thriving on the abundant pastoral care and dizzying array of educational choices. She can afford it, and I say good for her and them (one of her daughters suffers from severe depression, so I wish that kid all the pastoral care she can get).

        But make no mistake about it, they will graduate with a network overflowing with privilege that the majority of American kids will never ever have. The next four years will gut public education, and the results are going to be tragic. We all know that, right?

      • LAK says:

        And why are they so cheerful all the damned time?!?!

      • Lightpurple says:

        My mother’s approach to parenting was: “you have a book, right?” Settling disputes between squabbling kids: “Enough! Go read your books!” We were products of an atrocious school system but all managed to get through and establish careers for ourselves so her “parent by sending them off to read” method must have had some merit.

    • MI6 says:

      Very well said, Sixer, as per usual.
      And I will use “benign neglect by my parents” in either a sentence or a book at some point if you don’t mind.

      • Sixer says:

        Feel free!

      • graymatters says:

        My father actually used that term when he commented on the ideal parenting philosophy — I think I was ten at the time and frustrated that my friend wasn’t allowed to play with me anymore since we had TP’d the girl’s bathroom at school. We were already being punished by the principal; I didn’t see why her parents had to get involved too.

      • LAK says:

        Graymatters:😂😂😂

        In this age, you’d probably have to visit the police AND receive counselling for beimg naughty, destruction of school property etc etc and so forth.

    • lightpurple says:

      I knew you would sum it up brilliantly.

      Side note: a character in a play I saw the other night was reading Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

  7. freebunny says:

    Boarding school education is not european, it’s posh british.
    Non-posh british children don’t go to boarding schools.
    And even if it can be cruel for small children, those children are also very priviledged and part of the upper-class.

    • Alix says:

      I don’t consider any child privileged who is subject to cruelty.

    • Locke Lamora says:

      Yep, boarding schools are definitely not a thing in my ( european) country, or private schools in general, thank God. I think private education is damaging for society in general, not just children, but that’s a different matter.

    • SilverUnicorn says:

      No. Boarding schools existed in Italy for years so it’s not ‘just British’

  8. TotallyBiased says:

    Pictures on the school’s site look a lot like pics you would see on many another school’s–they may not do formal tests and classic grades but they are doing academic work along with the Steiner arts and movement oriented curriculum. I saw water testing, rocket launching, and use of surveying equipment, so aren’t exactly ignoring the sciences. Going by the experiences of friends in California who went to “alternative” high schools (and many of them were boarders) they will be very tightly bonded with their school cohort, it just won’t be very large!

  9. Sarah says:

    My father went to a posh British style boarding school in Zimbabwe in the 1940s/50s from the age of 5. He says that at that point, you could tell how posh a school was by how bad the food was. Apparently, there was so little of it, and so ghastly, that he used to grow taller only during the holidays. If this is the kind of thing that Tilda is referring to, I suspect she has good reason for her dislike of the institutions.

    • Sixer says:

      The food at Eton is nigh-on Michelin standard. Food at my school was brilliant. Like I said above, it’s not Tom Brown’s Schooldays any more.

      Here’s the Twatter for the Eton dining hall: @2EatEton

  10. Violet says:

    I do have friends in the US who went to boarding school and it seemed like they were people whose parents didn’t want to parent or whose parents wanted their children to climb socially. Not saying all parents, just parents I know.

    While Those in the US who went to boarding school did make some lifelong friends, so did those I know who went to state provided school. Perhaps this kind of thing differs by child? I struggle that what is or was best for the oldest child is often not best for the youngest.

  11. Pip says:

    As Sixer says, boarding schools have changed beyond belief over the past 20 or so years. I was at one of the top girls’ schools during the 80s & it was basically a dumping ground for kids from dysfunctional backgrounds. Abuse at home, addiction at home, suicide at home, messy divorces, runaway parents – you name it & that was just my immediate circle of friends. We banded together, looked after each other the best we could but drink/drugs, eating disorders & self-harm were absolutely rife. The school paid no attention to what we were/weren’t doing – they rarely had any idea where we were or who we were with at nights/weekends.

    It’s made me ferociously independent & I have an appalling relationship with my parents now.

    But things have changed – relatives who are boarding now or have recently seem to have thrived & done brilliantly. &, yes, will be forming part of the ruling class in the UK for decades to come :-/

    • Violet says:

      Ah yes, Pip, you and your friends’ experiences seem to match the other children of the 80s, 90s from boarding schools whom I know.

    • Miss Jupitero says:

      I was going to say, I went to Smith and had many classmates who went to boarding schools who reported exactly the same thing and I wondered about this. I never heard of anorexia until I hung out with the boarding school girls.

      • LAK says:

        I’d never heard of anorexia/bulimia until we arrived in Britain.

        I understand the theory around it and i try to sympathise, but my brain rejects it as ‘first world problems’ because when you’ve experienced a situation where availability of food is a real concern, refusing to eat or throwing it up feels luxury.

      • SilverUnicorn says:

        @LAK
        Anorexia is a mental disorder. It has nothing to do with ‘first world problems’.
        To reduce it just to that is very misinformed at the least.

        I really starved as a child, my father couldn’t afford to pay for food all time once bills and rents went through; but that didn’t stop me from becoming anorexic at 14 anyway.
        And even though I’ve been out of it for two decades, I can tell you that it is really, really difficult to change mindset; I’m still totally horrified at my appearance and avoid mirrors, selfies and generally pictures.

      • LAK says:

        Silverunicorn: I was very clear in my post that i understand and try to sympathise, but as your experience has informed your opinion, so has mine.

    • Tanakasan says:

      A friend went to a posh American Boarding school and said half the girls were lesbians sent away from home for “behaviour problems” (not being straight).

  12. thaliasghost says:

    However, the way she is doing it now isn’t any less posh. No working class child would be sent to an alternative school.

    In fact, that is a very interesting debate about how to teach children and the role class has in this. My language is much more so written the way we we speak than English. In the recent decades schools all over introduced this revolutioniary teaching concept of not concentrating on form as much – forcing children to learn to write correctly, but letting children approach writing playfully, letting them focus on what they hear first and spell what they hear and only later on correct them as to how words are actually written.

    Which turned out perfectly good for the children of upper middle class parents who are able to spend a great deal of time, expertise and money on the education of their children. It turned out a desaster for the children of poor people, who don’t have the time, money and expertise to carefully oversee their childrens education and rely on the school to do it and especially so the children of immigrants who barely speak the language themselves. An entire generation of children without the ressources and funds now have a literacy problem which will hold them back even more. Thank you so much, child development specialists who thought they were researching and operating in a classless vacuum!

  13. ab says:

    I don’t entirely disagree with her point, but the harry potter books/movies are a strange example to use. it took me a second to even remember that hogwarts was a boarding school. also, harry’s parents are dead and his aunt and uncle made him sleep in a closet, so I think hogwarts was the better option for him anyway. lol.

  14. suze says:

    Her alternative school sounds more exclusive and alienating than any traditional path, frankly.

    Maybe her experience as a boarder was not great, but she sure managed to launch a career from it.

  15. purple prankster says:

    I’m from Kenya, most people go to boarding school when they get to high school. I went and while the first year was tough I got used to it and it turned out to be a big blessing … my family has some strange and abusive dynamics and the time away from them with people who behaved differently was a godsend.

    • LAK says:

      Same Education culture in Uganda.

    • Tanakasan says:

      Immersing yourself in an aspirational atmosphere will do wonders for you putting your home life in perspective. some of us have had our academic careers eaten alive by parasitic “family.”

  16. dodgy says:

    Cry more. The posh boarding schools set you up with networks and by extension, highly paid jobs for life.

  17. Jerkface says:

    She gets an eternal bish please from me. I bet there are children going to public school in the Deep South today who’d give their dumb parents right arm to be sent away to learn. Her and Cumbersnatches can eff right off into the smug sunset together.

  18. M.A.F. says:

    So according to her a boarding school (which I’ve always wanted to go to) is cruel and yet a “make shift… hippie fantasy” school (to use Kaiser’s words) is better? Spare me, Tilda.

  19. Miss Jupitero says:

    Tilda has a son and a daughter– Xavier and Honor Byrne. Honor is a girl.

  20. ell says:

    it’s not european, it’s literally just the brits. and only some brits anyway.

    • SilverUnicorn says:

      Years ago they were quite widespread in Italy too. In my childhood, several Italian people were still shipping kids to boarding school (collegio and convitto in Italian). The last one in the town I was born was closed down in the 1980s. Contrarily to UK, many poor kids were going to boarding schools because especially the religious ones were meant to provide education to poor kids or kids living in rural locations where there were no schools.

      They were also infamous because the number of abuses that happened in them was quite high.

  21. MAC says:

    I did not get to read all the posts but boarding schools are not European.
    They are British. This article is incorrect. Scottish children were sent to British boarding schools and come home and talk for the rest of there life like the Queen. While it should not matter how a person spoke it actually did. Anyone I know who went to a boarding school is traumatized from the experience. I am against boarding schools. Private school I understand.

    • SilverUnicorn says:

      Italy used to have them too and I’m not sure if there are still some in the major cities

    • grumpy says:

      Scotland is a part of Britain. The Scots are British.

      Gordonstoun is a famous British boarding school in Scotland which Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Zara Phillips and Peter Phillips all went to.

  22. perplexed says:

    I wonder what she thinks of the Facts of Life. I love re-runs on Youtube of that show.

  23. Suzy from Ontario says:

    She has boy-girl twins, not twin sons.

  24. Timbuktu says:

    I know she is adored here, but she is just so unattractive to me. Knowing that she is high nobility suddenly explains a thing or two: she does, indeed, look like all those unattractive high nobility/royalty portrait you see in history books.

    Sorry, shallow, I know.

  25. ZombieLover says:

    She is 100% correct. Children need their parents, they want their parents. I think it is cruel. Perhaps some kids who are sent off don’t have loving active parents in their lives. That’s sad too. Poor kids.

  26. Tanakasan says:

    I would have loved to go to boarding school and get away from my nightmare of a family! then I wouldn’t have had to teach myself Latin while they were trying to cram bible nonsense down my throat while watching sitcoms and eating junk food.

  27. Who ARE These People? says:

    Just one late thing: Hogwarts wasn’t a school for the posh, Hogwarts was a school for the magically gifted!

    • Talia says:

      Agreed. It’s not a proper comparison. But I suppose Tilda is so scarred by her experience that she boarding school is all she saw in a very complex and fascinating universe of Harry Potter.

  28. Talia says:

    I love both Tilda and Joanne, so this shade is hard on me.
    For what it’s worth I wouldn’t compare Eton with Hogwarts. Hogwarts is awesome cos it’s in the world of magic and magic is what kids learn there. Plus, for Harry it’s not like he had all the options in the world – going to Montessory school or hippie or whatever. It was Hogwarts or living under the stairs being locked for the night, daily abused and bullied by ridiculous people. An orphan who witnessed his parents murder. So I’d say life was more cruel to him than the boarding magic school.

  29. AnotherDirtyMartini says:

    I wonder how she & Diana were classmates. There’s at least a 5 year age difference between them.