Why Eton has its own drug rehab programme

Elite schools admit that expelling pupils for having illegal substances does not work, and offer them therapy instead
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The Independent Online

Eton has turned out distinguished law-makers, record-breaking sportsmen and prime ministers for centuries, as well as grooming future kings.

But Britain's most prestigious public school has now gained a remarkable new distinction, setting up a rehabilitation programme for its privileged pupils. The Berkshire college, whose former pupils include the Tory leader David Cameron, has even employed a counsellor from the Priory in a bid to curb drug use at the £24,000-a- year school.

This unprecedented step, where students who admit to using drugs are offered therapy instead of expulsion, is in response to concerns about the widespread access that teenagers now have to illegal drugs, especially cocaine and cannabis.

The new, progressive approach is also being adopted across the country by other elite schools, including Millfield and Winchester, who admit that zero-tolerance policies fail.

Over the past 10 years, at least a dozen pupils have been expelled from Eton for drug use under their old hardline policies. Three years ago Prince Harry admitted that he had taken cannabis during his Eton school holiday.

There have been no expulsions since the introduction of Eton's "softly, softly" approach, said Dr Robert Stephenson, the lower master, who is in charge of Eton's anti-drugs policy. The number of pupils testing positive for illegal substances has reduced "dramatically". He stressed that the new rules did not apply to pupils found dealing or in the act of taking drugs.

"In the past, if a boy even admitted to drug use then they would have been expelled," said Dr Stephenson. "Now, they are sent to me and we discuss the situation. I don't think we could ever claim to be 100 per cent drugs free. We're fighting a battle to make our boys understand there is no such thing as a safe drug."

The aim of this approach is to identify at an early age children and teenagers who are at risk of drug addiction, before they can develop a long-term habit or slide into serious drug abuse.

Behind closed doors, students who own up to their drug use are asked to sign a special contract agreeing to undergo testing. A master then takes a hair sample and sends it to a Home Office laboratory.

Those with serious problems are offered talking therapy - a technique already credited for reforming drug addicts - where a trained expert encourages the boy to discuss the root cause of their addiction.

Although Eton declined to give exact figures, it confirmed that "a number" of boys were currently signed up to drug-testing contracts after experimenting with drugs. In one recent case, a pupil who had tried cocaine was sent to a treatment clinic outside the college because he was believed to have an addictive personality.

Former pupils who spoke to The Independent on Sunday described Eton as a "magnet" for dealers who know that the privileged pupils have plenty of money to spend.

Tom Seidler, who first became involved in drug-taking while at the college, revealed that pupils would fill in "shopping lists" requesting their drugs of choice, including cannabis, amphetamines, LSD and ecstasy.

The 29-year-old went to jail at the age of 19 after returning to the school and being found in the grounds with cannabis and speed. He now sells bibles.

Mr Seidler said that he thought that drugs would help him fulfil his aim in life - to have fun. By the time he left the school, he was smoking "weed" up to five times a day and taking LSD at weekends.

"People have a lot of money to spend at Eton. They would pay by cash in advance," said the reformed addict who spent six months at Onley Young Offenders Institute. "Someone would come round with a shopping list for half-term and we filled in our requests. Sometimes the total order was in excess of £500.

"Prison made me realise that I had messed up what others never had. Most are born into a hard life."

Bim Afolami, an Old Etonian and Oxford undergraduate, said a core of around 20 boys smoked cannabis in his year and would secretly roll joints in fields near the school. During his time at the boarding school, the zero-tolerance approach to drugs resulted in a close friend being expelled.

"He lost his place at Oxford. It was such a shame that his life was messed up for one mistake," said the 19-year-old, who believes the new approach is more "flexible, supportive and sensible".

"Because Eton is incredibly competitive, those who didn't feel part of the system took drugs. They were the most unhappy at school and created their own identity around drugs."

Additional reporting by Danielle Gusmaroli

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