The truth about scandal at elite boarding schools
A sports star’s son at Charterhouse had to cut the grass with scissors
Boarding schools have strange reputations. Public perception is either they’re super strict, high-pressured environments filled with double barrel surnamed weirdos. Or that all pupils are coked up double barrel surnamed weirdos blowing their parents money. Sometimes both, but there doesn’t seem to be much in between.
Eton’s headmaster has been in the Times telling parents how to deal with “teenage subculture” — drugs, drinking, sex, porn, homosexuality and mental health problems. He wants more schools to issue drug tests for likely suspects and is advocating a contract system like the one currently used at Eton.
Etonians who admit to “involvement in drugs” are asked to sign a contract where the boy “commits to a new path”. He also wants parents to talk to friends of their children in order to find out more about teenage subculture.
We spoke to former schoolboys — who unsurprisingly wanted anonymity — from some of the most prestigious boarding schools in the country about their experiences there. Are these schools really as messed up as everyone thinks?
An institution older than America and school to 19 Prime Ministers, Eton College is probably the most famous school in the world.
One former pupil said: “No one was really stupid enough to do drugs at school, but I did used to inhale NOS in my room on Monday mornings after my double maths lessons with a few people to cheer me up for the remainder of the day. We got caught but nothing really happened, we just got a bit of a talking to then we learnt to be a bit more subtle.
“NOS was to get rid of Monday Blues, weed was to chill in the Friday groove.”
The Old Etonian, who claims others were worse behaved, admitted drugs were pretty rare at the school and drinking was tame.
“Sneaking out was tough too as teachers patrolled the bridge at night used to go to Windsor. Boys were forced to get crafty, with one pupil buying an inflatable dinghy to paddle across the Thames so he wouldn’t get caught.
“In terms of punishments one friend was once made to write a four page essay on Homer Simpson because he was caught up past his bedtime.
“The harshest punishment I ever got was probably having to copy out Virgil’s most famous book for three hours in Latin.”
One of the most expensive boarding schools in the country, Charterhouse is no stranger to scandals. But when I looked around as a prospective sixth form pupil I noticed a slight gender divide. Only the girls spoke to us and the sole contact I had with the boys was when they were throwing bananas at us in the dining room.
Some houses have competitions when the girls first join in sixth form to see which boy can go the longest without talking to any of them. Boys caught talking to girls are accused of schweffing.
One schoolboy told us this doesn’t usually last very long but some boys took it very seriously. He said: “One made it through the first two terms without speaking to any of the girls once.”
This lack of conversation doesn’t seem to stop budding romances though. “Everyone had sex in school. It was pretty easy to get away with but you’d face expulsion if caught.”
Bizarrely, Charterhouse seems to be particularly strict when it comes to grass. Actual grass, not weed — although they aren’t lenient on that either. Pupils might be asked to write an essay on “Grass Rules” if caught walking across the lawn in some parts of the school.
One former student told The Tab he watched as the son of a famous sports star was caught walking on the grass so his head of house made him cut the grass with a pair of scissors.
School to many influential figures, most notably the musician Will Young, you might know the school because of its sex scandal with the former head girl who was caught “in a clinch” with a boy pupil when the head boy was showing perspective students around.
Last year’s AS level English class at the £33,000-a-year school spent a year being taught the wrong book. The mistake was only discovered a few weeks before the exam when questions on the text failed to appear in the mock exam paper.
The Old Wellingtonian we spoke to made it sound a lot less scandalous than we had expected. “No secret drinking societies I’m afraid. I never came into contact with drugs. You were always aware of people having taken them outside of school, but never on campus.”
Sex, drugs and bullying were seen as “no take back expulsion offences” but for something minor punishments at Wellington were a bit more creative.
“If the brew (kitchen) was left dirty the whole house might get banned.
“The upper years might then give out punishments like writing a random essay. One pupil was made to write an essay about the life of a ping pong ball without using the word round, white, ball or circle. Another was made to colour in an entire sheet of A4 paper using only a biro.”
A former Bradfield schoolboy was jailed for five years after starting an international criminal website at the age of 17. The site sold stolen bank details and traded advice on how to get away with committing crimes. He was inspired to create the website after he failed to find any English language sites with such information. Police estimate that the site had the potential to steal over £15 million from individuals and firms.
He started off his career as a hacker by deleting friends’ detentions from school records.
One ex-pupil told us: “It was tough to sneak around at the mixed school. Visiting hours were kept short and signing in sheets made sure that everyone was in the right place at the right time. Some girls houses had bars on the windows, evening registers, rounds at lights out and doors which were locked and alarmed.”
This didn’t stop some of the more lustful students who “did stuff outside in the winter because it was dark.”
Winchester College in Hampshire has existed in its present location for 600 years. It claims the longest unbroken history of any school in England.
We spoke to a schoolboy expelled in his final two weeks at the school for having a girl stay over. He had finished his exams and claims he was just staying to play cricket.
“During my time at the school, prefects had once punished me by making me colour in every vowel on a page of Wykehamist, the school journal, for talking during homework.
“Another time I was made to go to town and get a parking ticket at precisely 06:37.”
“We could sneak a few beers but nothing major. Drugs were a chucking out offence.”
You can’t write about Eton without mentioning Harrow. Eton had Eddie Redmayne, Harrow had Benedict Cumberbatch. Eton had Boris Johnson, Harrow had Winston Churchill.
I once attended the annual Eton vs Harrow cricket match at Lords. The chants were fantastic, Etonians singing “Eton COLLEGE, Harrow SCHOOL”. Harrovians chanting back “One day you’ll work for us”. Actually, that may have been the Etonians again, it’s hard to distinguish between the two.
A current pupil at the school told The Tab that apparently the school policy on getting caught with a girl is “way stricter than at Eton”.
He said drugs are a simple “no way”. In 2008 the soon-to-be head boy was forced to leave after admitting to taking cocaine over the summer holidays.
Punishments, or skews as they are referred to at Harrow, for something more minor – like being late for chapel – can range from detention and clearing rubbish to writing rainbow lines if you’ve been caught “doing something wrong more than once”. You’d then have to write a page full of lines where each letter has to be a different colour.
“Sometimes it’s lots of different pens and sometimes it’s one of those biros with different colours on it.”
These elite establishments seem less scandalous and more strict than we’d all hope. When scandals do occur they receive so much attention because they tarnish the impressive reputations pupils are expected to uphold. Add that to hundreds of years worth of traditions and the thousands of pounds parents have invested, it’s not surprising that we’re all so interested in them.