Public school for scandal

After a teacher was indicted for rape and a pupil died while drunk, the new term sees Millfield school in sombre mood. By Kathy Marks
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The Independent Culture
From the theatre, take the path that skirts the golf course and cross the bridge over the ornamental lake. Turn left, and duck under a canopy of trees to reach Millfield School's pride and joy, an eight-lane Olympic swimming-pool. Meander back up via the running-track and the stables, pausing to admire the sculptures dotted around the periphery of the 1,000- acre grounds.

Millfield, in Somerset, has perhaps the loveliest setting of any public school, and facilities to make a doting father swoon. Add a reputation for sporting excellence and tolerable academic results, and you begin to grasp why parents are prepared to part with nearly pounds 15,000 a year in boarding-fees.

This week, though, there was many a furrowed brow among people dropping off their children for the beginning of term. For in recent months an institution that once rejoiced in an impeccable good name has lurched from one damaging scandal to the next. This is, without a doubt, the most difficult period in the school's 53-year history. Beneath the air of cheerful industriousness that greets visitors, there is a profound sense of malaise.

The 1,250 pupils broke up for summer in sombre mood after the death in June of Jennifer Gelardi, a 14-year-old who fell to her death from a dormitory roof. Jennifer, a bright and promising girl, had drunk a litre bottle of vodka with a friend.

As the new headmaster, Peter Johnson, prepared to take over this week, there were hopes that his arrival would lift morale. Little could Mr Johnson have dreamt that his first task, even before term began, would be to issue a statement on the arrest of a music teacher accused of raping a 15-year- old girl.

David Fitzgerald, who was remanded on bail by Frome magistrates, is charged with assaulting the girl in a school flat on the campus a fortnight ago. The case evokes uneasy memories of Paul Hickson, the swimming-coach jailed in 1995 for raping teenage girls before he took up a post at Millfield.

For legal reasons, little more can be said about the allegations. The soul-searching continues about the Gelardi affair, though, because although its tragic conclusion was unusual, the events leading up to it were not. The inquest, which recorded a verdict of accidental death, was told that drinking was rife at the school. In one of a spate of unfortunate incidents, a dozen boarders were suspended in 1995 after a late-night binge.

Drugs, too, have become part of the culture at Millfield, which prides itself on attracting the offspring of foreign politicians and royalty, including Boris Ukulov, the grandson of Boris Yeltsin. At least 10 pupils have been expelled for taking cannabis and LSD at school.

Were the authorities to break their current vow of silence, they would doubtless talk reassuringly of a few bad apples. Speak to parents and teachers and you hear the same refrain: even the best public schools are afflicted by such problems; Millfield has no more than its fair share.

Millfield, though, is not like most other public schools. Founded in 1935 by Jack Meyer, an eccentric former Somerset cricketer, it is progressive in philosophy and liberal in outlook. These attributes have persuaded the likes of Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Watts, King Hussein of Jordan and Adnan Khashoggi to send their offspring here. Children enjoy an uncommon degree of freedom, being permitted to wander unsupervised around the local town, Street, after lessons. Boarders - 75 per cent of pupils - can visit pubs at the weekend once they turn 18.

The other difference is the sheer wealth of these teenagers. As they descend on the town at lunch time, they stand out from the locals in their expensively cut clothes. The girls have the elegance and poise of catwalk models. Adolescents queue up at cashpoints to withdraw wads of cash, and arrange assignations on mobile phones. As 2pm beckons, they order taxis rather than walk the half mile back up the hill to school.

A former teacher recalls one boy who arrived at Millfield with 30 suits. "A lot of the children have credit cards with no limit," he says. "If they fancy going on a drinking-spree, money is no object." Emma Wilkinson, who boarded for two years, says: "Money was a massive focus. We're talking new wardrobes of designer clothes every half-term."

Street's proximity to Glastonbury, haunt of hippies and travellers, means that drugs are more easily available than in most small towns. Phil Daysh, licensee of the Street Inn, says Millfield's image as a school for rich kids made it a magnet for dealers. "They could park up outside like an ice-cream van and do a roaring trade," says a lunch-time regular, suppressing a giggle.

Chris Brown, a former day pupil, is entirely unsurprised by such lurid stories. When he was there, he and his contemporaries would persuade older pupils to buy alcohol for them in Street. They smoked cannabis in the school grounds from the age of 14. "It's such a huge site, and there are plenty of secluded spots for kids to have a shag or a spliff."

"Boss" Meyer, who, legend has it, founded the school after a despondent maharajah friend failed to get his son into Eton, would spin in his grave if he heard all this. His own weakness was gambling. His abrupt departure as headmaster in 1971 followed an unfortunate all-night session at the gaming-tables, and a bag of school fees.

Meyer's unorthodox selection methods - some pupils in the early days were admitted if they could catch a cricket ball hurled at them from behind his desk - were part of a mission to nurture a broad spectrum of gifts. The accent on sport has provided Millfield with a roll-call of illustrious alumni - including the Welsh rugby player Gareth Edwards, the Olympic gold medal swimmer Duncan Goodhew and the cricketer Ian Botham. But it has also contributed to the school's reputation as a haven for children of unexceptional intellect. Nick Ashforth, who attended a rival establishment, says: "Millfield was the team that you didn't want to play against, because it meant getting thrashed. It wasn't the place where people sent their academically gifted sons."

Christopher Martin, who retired as head last summer after eight years, tried to shift the emphasis from brawn to brains. But he also presided over a big expansion in pupil numbers, which some insiders believe helps to explain the wave of teenagers going off the rails.

The school argues that it takes a pragmatic approach to such matters. It offers drugs counselling, and arranges visits to the campus by police with sniffer dogs. Pupils found with illegal substances are expelled on the spot.

Anne Leaman, whose two daughters attended Millfield, approves. "When we first met the head, he told us: `Don't think that the school doesn't have a drugs problem, because it does'," she says. "I was horrified; then I realised that it's no worse than other schools, it just doesn't believe in sweeping things under the carpet."

She, together with numerous other parents, says that the pastoral care at Millfield cannot be faulted.

Brian Letts, a criminal barrister who has four children at the school, agrees. "Because of my professional life, I am only too aware of the problems that drink and drugs pose for young people," he says. "Despite all the recent sad events, I believe that Millfield's modern outlook makes it better able than most schools to equip children to deal with the challenges of the modern world."

In Street, there is scant sympathy for Millfield's plight. Residents are ambivalent towards it. They recognise its importance to the local economy but resent its privileged pupils and fabulous facilities, beyond the wildest dreams of comprehensives in Street and Glastonbury.

Millfield is proud of its famous old boys and girls and circulates a list of them, with their occupations; whatever bad habits pupils pick up at school, they can look forward to networking when they leave. There are advantages to rubbing shoulders with children who bring their ponies to school, and whose parents turn up at open days in private helicopters. Millfield, it goes without saying, has its own helipad.

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