Is Boarding School Best for 'Everest Orphans'?

2015-01-07

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The recent anniversary of the first ever ascent of Everest has refreshed the debate over the educational needs of the children orphaned as a result of the world’s highest mountain.

There is undoubtedly a need to address the issues of education and support for Everest orphans in the absence of a robust welfare system, but how best to do this is open to debate.

Well-intentioned fellow climbers and others with a disposable income will often offer sponsorships and some children will be accepted for scholarships, but many experts question if this support is always in the best interests of the child, especially when it involves sending them to boarding schools at a time when their emotions may already be in disarray.

Many climbers do not want their children to follow in their footsteps and see education as a means of avoiding this and it is for this reason, amongst many, that well-meaning benefactors offer what educational opportunities they can.  This does not always take into account the emotional impact being sent away to an unfamiliar and sometimes isolating environment can have on a child who has already experienced a loss.

The scale of this issue cannot be underestimated, given that just one recent avalanche left 32 children without fathers – one who was just two-weeks-old at the time.  Nor can the potential for harm considering that age and background is often not taken into account when enrolling a fatherless child at boarding school.

The potential psychological impact of a boarding school education for those unsuited to the environment has long been ignored but it is now being recognised more widely.  In Britain, for example, it has even been given the name ‘Boarding School Syndrome,’ as more and more experts accept the negative emotional impact it can have.  This is despite the fact that in the UK, a boarding school is usually seen as a privilege that should be appreciated rather than criticised.

Expert Opinion

In guidance notes to mental health professionals and practitioners, psychotherapist Nick Duffell says unsuited boarding school pupils can often grow into secretive and repressed adults, yet will often not voice their unhappiness as they feel they are expected to be grateful for the opportunities they have been granted.  Many go on to become workaholics or to have difficulties maintaining intimate relationships.

The psychological problems some boarders are left with can also lead to a range of other issues, which can have an impact on the individuals, their families and friends, and society as a whole.  Both illegal and prescription drugs are often used as a way to self-medicate, for example.  Even young people can turn to drugs and other ways to get high, such as inhalant and solvent abuse, in a bid to escape feelings of rejection, abandonment, and loneliness.  Some will be lucky enough to receive the support they need to deal with their drug use and their psychological problems but others, who do not get help, can find their lives spiralling out of control.  Even the best boarding school education cannot help at times like these and the opportunities that were previously presented may be lost as these people struggle to survive and nothing more.

In America, a report by the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research into the effects of boarding schools on natives of the country and their communities found that whilst many people reported positive results from this form of education, many others spoke of the negative impacts on both themselves and their communities of being forcibly sent away.

Between the early 1900s and the 1970s, private churches and later the state government regularly sent children from rural communities to boarding schools.  Some of these children expressed regret that this had led to a loss of their cultural identity and to alcohol, drug-abuse and even suicide in some cases, and also said that their absences had created a void in their communities.

Available Alternatives

World Education’s Nepal country director Helen Sherpa questions the effects of rushing Everest’s fatherless children off to a boarding school, asking instead if they could be better supported at a village school before being offered university or Plus Two assistance.  She also claims that there is still a culture of denial in Nepal about the scale of institutionalised sexual and physical abuse in some boarding schools and not enough consideration to the long-term problems faced by affected children that can be associated with feeling alienated from their culture, seeing their family less, and feeling emotionally deprived.  She agrees with Nick Duffell, author of The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System, claiming that even people who go on to become successful after receiving a boarding school education can be hiding difficulties with intimate relationships that can affect them throughout their lives.

There is also the issue that despite their parents believing that they will get a better education, many sponsored children in Nepal are sent to cheaper schools where standards and facilities are much lower than in their elite counterparts.  Children from villages are also often placed in lower grades as a result of their previous education, increasing the potential for stigma and emotional trauma.

Then there is the possibility of sponsors pulling out or scholarships being terminated, for whatever reason, and the pressure for families to send all of their children to boarding school when one of them has been given the opportunity.  Central to this problem is also the timing of when decisions about the future of these children are made.  A grieving widow is often incapable of properly considering all of the implications of accepting financial help at her hour of greatest need. 

Of course, there are many excellent boarding schools in Nepal and many children who will thrive and learn.  There are many invaluable scholarships and sponsors that give young people opportunities that they could never have dreamed of.  That does not mean that the plight of some ‘Everest Orphans’, who may not be emotionally capable enough for such a large transition, should be forgotten – as long as the great mountain continues taking lives.

Sources

‘Everest’s orphans,’ accessed 15 June 2014, http://www.ekantipur.com/2014/05/29/oped/everests-orphans/390195.html.

‘For Clinical Practitioners,’ accessed 15 June 2014, http://www.boardingconcern.org.uk/index.php?pageid=18.

‘The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System,’ accessed 15 June 2014, http://www.genderpsychology.com/public.

‘Shed a Tear for Britain’s Messed up Boarding School Kids,’ accessed 15 June 2014, http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/boarding-school-syndrome.

‘Inhalant Abuse Symptoms, Signs and Addiction Treatment,’ accessed 15 June 2014, http://drugabuse.com/library/inhalant-abuse/.

‘Thirty Years Later: The Long-term effect of Boarding Schools on Alaska Natives and their Communities,’ accessed 15 June 2014, http://www.worlded.org/WEIInternet/international/where/display.cfm?tid=1034&id=889.

‘American Indian Boarding Schools,’ accessed 15 June 2014, http://www.prrac.org/full_text.php?header=Symposium%3A+Native+Americans+and+Alaska+Natives%3A+The+Forgotten+Minority&item_id=11355&newsletter_id=102&text_id=1204.

‘Welcome to Nepal Academy of Psychology website,’ accessed 15 June 2014, http://nap.edu.np/.

‘Nepal,’ accessed 15 June 2014, http://www.worlded.org/WEIInternet/international/where/display.cfm?tid=1034&id=889.

Author:[Emma Jones]