6th November 2019
Will be writing some stuff for the the legendary Vice Magazine over the coming
For the last five years I have been researching and writing about the lives of thousands of Generation Z-ers (ages 12-23), for two books, Generation Z, Their Voices, Their Lives and soon, The A-Z of Modern Girls. Inevitably, one of the areas of real interest has been their social and cultural lives, and how similar and different these are to previous generations of young people.
Much has been made of the fact Generation Z are a comparatively sober generation to previous generations of young people, with boozing, smoking and recreational drug-taking at historic lows. It is reasonable to surmise there is a cautiousness to Generation Z, lots of older commentators unfairly call “snowflakiness’ but that nevertheless doesn’t really lend itself to hedonism or consequences-be-damned druggy fun. They also lead more sheltered lives, choosing st-ocialisng (stay at home socialising) over trying to blag their way into pubs and clubs like the more rebellious kids of yesteryear. There are however exceptions, and in general, the higher up the socio-economic ladder you go, the more signs of good old-fashioned excess you find. A good portion of the ‘tough on all lawbreakers, except our mates’ Tory Party have recently spoken of ‘school’ (because none of them still do it) boozing and drug-taking, and a step inside the hallowed school halls today reveals the posh school party never stopped.
In private schools, and particularly the richest and most elite ones, there are notably more types (compared to state school kids) who’s spirit animal is more Keith Richards than Ed Sheeran. Counterintuitively, kids from very wealthy and privileged backgrounds often experience less parental intervention, with nannies and boarding schools substituting for parents, and said parents making up for their absence with oodles and oodles of cash and flash toys.
Charles, 18, who attends one of the most expensive and famous schools in the world concurs. “My Mum and Dad gave me a pretty free rein since I was a young teenager. My au pair was a pushover, Dad runs several hedge-funds and my Mum is always either at spas or on charity boards. But my freedom was nothing compared to some – especially some of the foreign students. We had this guy join our year and his Dad was a proper Russian oligarch and playboy. He wanted his son to be known as a playboy too, so he’d let him throw these parties from his massive Knightsbridge house with the lot – coke, ketamine, mushrooms, ecstasy, absolutely top-shelf booze, and high-class hookers. We’d all go practically every weekend. They got so out of hand and we’d all be so fucked up on a Monday, SLT (senior leadership team) got word and banned sixth-formers going home at weekends except EXEATs (calendared weekends off campus.)
The drug and partying culture at another £35k+ also came as a surprise to Alonso, when he won a sixth-form scholarship which took him away from his “fairly shitty” school and the estate he lived on in East London. “Back home, everyone claimed to take drugs, especially smoke weed, but in practice a lot more talking got done about drugs than actually taking them. At my new school it was the opposite.” As Alonso settled into his new school, and got accepted (no surprise he’s funny, good-looking, tall and athletic) he started to learn the culture and more secret inner workings of the famous school. Punishment for drinking and taking drugs is clear on the website and in the handbook is clear – expulsion. The reality was a little different. Alonso knew several of the students who got caught drinking, smoking weed and with harder drugs including ecstasy and cocaine on campus and got little more than a slap on the wrist and weekend ‘going-out’ privileges rescinded for a couple of weeks.
A member of staff who has worked at Alonso’s school for twelve years discussed the reasons for the disparity between the school’s stated drug policy and the actual reality:
“Remember, parents have a lot of power at fee-paying schools, and schools bend over backwards to accommodate them. They’re the very valued customer. We’ve had countless drug ‘incidences’ during my time that ostensibly should have resulted in expulsion, and either got smoothed over, forgiven or hushed up – mostly due to pressure from the powerful and wealthy parents. In fact, there’s only one immediate expulsion I can remember – it was a non-fee-paying scholarship kid in Year 11 basically dealing anything he could get his hands on to the other kids. I guess he figured out they could afford it.”
The ‘afford it’ part is of course, crucial. A major driver or inhibitor of taking drugs, particularly expensive drugs like cocaine, is money. Drug-taking is often spun as something more psychologically complex – masking pain, repeating cycles, self-harm, switching off from a chaotic world – and certainly these can be and are factors, but the bottom line is, if you don’t have money yourself or move in circles where drugs are available, you are far less likely to take drugs, and the statistics back this up. Girls from privileged backgrounds are three times as likely to have drug or alcohol related issues than their poorer peers, and boys twice as likely: https://asunow.asu.edu/20170531-discoveries-asu-study-kids-high-achieving-schools-addiction-affluence
Annabelle, 18, who has now left school and attends Durham university, confirms this. She left her very ritzy boarding with four A* grade A-levels and a grade-A cocaine and Adderall habit. As she describes, “cocaine was fun when were home at weekends and more when we were at home – I think we would have been expelled for cocaine. The Adderall was for school time. I know loads and loads of people who used it – especially the girls – around high-pressured times like exams.” As Annabelle points out, both drugs have the ‘benefit’ of supressing appetite and ensuring you are thin – another pressure private school girls tend to succumb to – eating disorders are also more prevalent at private schools than at state schools. Interestingly, whilst Annabelle and friends scored their Adderall on the dark web in bulk, they bought their cocaine from another student, who scored if from his Dad’s dealer. “It was by all accounts a bit farcical,” says Annabelle. “My friend Greg (who attended school with Annabelle) knew his Dad sometimes took coke, so he got his dealer’s number and made a connection. His Dad never found out, though I heard Greg went to rehab after sixth form. He definitely needed to.”
When I asked Annabelle if anyone ever worried about the cost of buying expensive drugs, she laughs and describes the drug-tier pricing of her and her friends’ dealer: “For cocaine he had three different prices a gram, in different coloured wraps. The cheapest was £50 a gram in a white wrap. The middle was £75 in a blue wrap, and the most expensive was £100 that came in a black wrap.” The blue wrap cocaine was fondly named ‘Hughs’ after an actor with a fondness for the white stuff Annabelle and co. shared a dealer with, who never paid the top whack for his coke.
Whilst it is unfair to suggest all private and boarding schools are Bacchanalian centres of excess where kids are snorting lines of rail off their Biology text-books, it would also be wrong – as most of the headteachers of such schools would insist – that drugs aren’t commonly used and widely available in some of the most expensive schools in the land. And it’s not hard to figure out why. Very wealthy kids can afford to be less worried about tomorrow, because tomorrow is taken care of, so hangovers and drug-comedowns aren’t such a big deal. Blowing money on blow, or whatever your poison happens to be isn’t given a second thought if you have millions or billions in the bank. But perhaps the biggest driver of private school drug abuse is this: elite schools can be Darwinian pressure cookers with a constant race to the top for good grades, athleticism, the best social circle, the best looks, the best body and the best image. Drugs since the beginning of time have been used to give humans a perceived ‘edge’ and this edge is something many wealthy, competitive kids will pursue chemically.
As Alonso notes, “I saw just as many drugs at my private school as I did on the rough estate in London I grew up in. The only difference is, the drugs at boarding school were of a much higher quality.”
Private and expensive schools are full of tales of the very privileged – royalty, Hollywood, kids of top politicians and diplomats – getting caught doing drugs and all manner of naughty things – and more often than not, getting away with it. We live in a country absolutely stratified by class and money whereby laws are far more flexible if you and your family have money and power. Unsurprisingly this entirely inequitable system so much of our current government have seemed to have taken full advantage of, is learned first at the kind of schools most of them, and all the kids in this piece, attend.