Education / Independent Schools: Sex 'n' drugs 'n' boarding school: A few headlines have led outsiders to overestimate the temptations faced by mixed boarders, writes Robert Gretton

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The Independent Online
WHEN parents pay pounds 12,000 a year to send their children away to be educated, they naturally expect them to be safe from avoidable hazards. They expect schools to place a sex-and-drugs cordon sanitaire round their offspring - the kind of protective barrier that is not enforceable outside boarding institutions.

Twenty years ago, a trickle of public schools started to admit girls as well as boys. Since then they have attracted regular sex-and-drugs headlines. But co-educational boarding schools are nothing new: they have been around for at least a century.

Bedales, in Hampshire, has a precise mix of 195 boys and 195 girls. It was founded 100 years ago this month. For all that time it has enjoyed, or suffered, the 'progressive school' label. Outsiders used to think if boys and girls were boarded together, they must be 'at it' all the time.

The reality, according to generations of Bedalians, is more prosaic: the opportunities for sexual adventure or drug abuse are more limited than for children attending their local school.

Alison Willcocks, the deputy head, suggests some reasons why. 'Because Bedales' co-education covers the whole age range from nursery through to university entrance, it really does produce the feeling of boys and girls growing up in mutual trust - even to those coming in at the later entry points.'

She also points to Bedales' disciplinary equality and its complete application of co-education. Uniquely, for example, children have mixed PE classes. Bedales' length of experience in co- education, Mrs Willcocks says, is evidence of the school's ability to educate boys and girls together in a spirit of genuine equality and partnership.

'Sex education starts at nine to 10 years old and carries on right through to 15 or 16. At 14, we split them into smaller groups so that a degree of confidence, safety, trust and responsibility is built up,' she says.

Occasional news stories about sex or drugs at Bedales, and other similar schools, testify to periodic slip-ups. Bedales points out that no school is free of such incidents, saying the media are naturally more interested in schools that educate children of the rich and famous. With an unusually high quota of such pupils - including, at one time, Princess Margaret's two children - Bedales is prone to this sort of

attention.

Should British boarding schools follow the French education minister's lead, and fit condom machines in schools? No way, according to Mrs Willcocks. Bedales issues a detailed handbook of rules to every pupil and member of staff: 'Any pupil involved in sex or drugs can expect to be expelled. No co-educational boarding school can tolerate pupils having sex whilst they are in our charge.' The handbook acknowledges that the school's rules about sex are different from the laws of the land, but insists on applying them to all pupils, including those over 16.

Other mixed boarding schools are equally firm about expelling anyone having sex or taking drugs. Oakham School, Leicestershire, with 500 boys and 500 girls, has just celebrated 21 years of co-education - one of the more experienced boarding schools among recent converts to co-education. Five Oakham pupils were expelled last term, with a letter to their parents explaining that they were using drugs.

James Flecker, headmaster of Ardingly College, near Haywards Heath, West Sussex, which has 295 boys and 205 girls, says: 'It is remarkable how very little I'm asked by parents about sex. It could be that they have faith that we arrange things properly. A considerable amount of supervision goes on, the greatest part of which is by their peers. This works because no one wants to be caught in an embarrassing situation by their friends.'

As well as expulsion for drug use, Ardingly submits some pupils to random blood or urine tests. It does, however, consider admitting pupils who have been expelled from other schools for drugs, albeit with extreme caution. Oundle School, in Northamptonshire, with 690 boys and 135 girls, emphasises the importance of bringing in drug experts from outside to convey the health risks to their 14- and 15-year olds.

Boys and girls are usually accommodated in separate buildings, but at Bedales next September, the upper sixth pupils (aged 17 and 18) will move into a mixed-sex building. The first floor will have co-ed study rooms for up to three students and there will be a bar and social area on the same floor. On the floor above will be single-sex dormitories and a few boys- or girls-only study areas. Bedales believes this will give pupils the privacy that is lacking in other co-ed schools, while resembling conditions pupils can expect at university.

Single sex boarding schools tend to believe they suffer less from sex and drugs problems. Enid Castle, principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College, says: 'Today, every school is concerned about drugs and sex, but in a school like this there's no need to impress the opposite sex, so there's less pressure and less distraction. That is why they do better academically.'

David McMurray, headmaster of Oundle, Northamptonshire, and chairman of the Head Masters' Conference boarding committee, says: 'These problems confront everyone in outside society and we reflect the nature of that society. The strength of boarding schools is that moral education is absorbed at every stage of the day - what they learn is caught rather than taught. We are preparing boys and girls for a society where they expect to live and work alongside each other in perfect equality.'

(Photograph omitted)

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