Public schools told to beware dangers of illegal drugs

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The headteachers of Britain's most expensive schools have been warned that the privileged backgrounds of their fee-paying students are not necessarily a protection against the "evil" of illegal drugs.

A bereaved mother told them that many teachers and parents seemed to think that prosperity shielded their children from the drugs trade, but that dealers targeted public school pupils because they had money to spend.

Elizabeth Burton-Phillips, head of Godstowe preparatory school in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, and a campaigner against illegal drugs, said: "Could it be that one of the significant problems that middle-class youth face in our independent schools is denial that your school could ever have any drug problem or the foolish belief that cannabis is not that serious?

"As one middle-class parent remarked to me recently, 'We are lucky, we don't have a problem with drugs in our schools in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Eton, because the Queen lives here. This is why we pay our fees.'"

The damage that drugs can cause even in the cloistered world of a £25,000-a- year boarding school was illustrated this year by the case of William Jaggs, who was committed to Broadmoor in July after admitting killing Lucy Braham, a fashion designer.

The killer and his victim knew each other because their fathers were both senior masters at Harrow, one of England's oldest and most prestigious private schools. Jaggs, a former Harrow pupil, became a heavy user of cocaine and LSD while he was a student at Oxford.

Mrs Burton-Phillips's twin sons, Nick and Simon, became addicted after experimenting with cannabis when they were pupils at a fee-paying school. Nick committed suicide in 2004, aged 28.

Teachers attending the annual meeting of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference in Bouremouth watched in silence as she showed disturbing pictures of what drugs had done to her sons.

"There is this feeling that within the public school system children are safe from the dangers of the outside world. Actually, you are just as vulnerable as anybody – and more vulnerable because of your money," she added.

"Since speaking at many independent schools, it is shocking to have discovered that the pupils are not informed about the sophisticated grooming techniques used by drug dealers, to help unsuspecting, naive, wealthy pupils to progress from the 'fun' of recreational drugs to a place of despair, decay and death."

She added: "We do not need more liberal strategies – drastic action is required by all of us – government, schools and parents. Drugs are the absolute evil of our society, and addiction is a silent epidemic.

"All parents are rightly terrified that their children may be targeted and abused by a paedophile. Why then, is very little said about the grooming which is done by drug dealers?"

Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College and author of a biography of Tony Blair, warned the meeting that pupils might be driven to become "high on drugs" by excessive pressure to pass exams. He said: "The greatest problem is this obsession – the way that we have allowed our schools to be taken over by the ideology of testing and examinations as the sole criterion of what makes a good school. It is leading to distress that leads to drug-taking."

But he added that his policy was one of "zero tolerance". Any pupil caught with illegal drugs should be expelled, as a warning to others that even cannabis can ruin lives.

"I heard the other day about an adult who smoked a joint – his first joint – and he lost his mind for six months. You can just be unlucky. You can have this predisposition which can tip you into psychotic disorder and malfunction which can be cataclysmic and from which some people can never recover their baseline sanity."