This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Britain's private schools take a tough stance on drugs. To make sure nobody's spending their tuck money on THC vape pods, schools have been known to randomly drugs test students, send sniffer dogs into boarding houses and expel pupils for admitting drug use.
But just like the wider world – surprise, surprise – zero tolerance isn't working. Whether it's upper crust pupils caught dealing Class As, going on cocaine binges on class field trips or David Cameron admitting he got "off his head" at Eton, behind the manicured cricket pitches and astronomical fees of Britain's most elite schools, our future overlords seem to love getting on it.
For the last five years I've been researching and writing about the lives of thousands of Gen Z-ers, from kids on council estates to the sons and daughters of the super rich. 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 that Gen Z is a comparatively sober generation (even though drug use is back on the rise among young people), with boozing and smoking at historic lows and kids choosing "st-ocialisng" – stay at home socialising – over trying to blag their way into pubs and clubs like the teenagers of yesteryear.
But what sprung out at me was how common drug taking is within our private school system. The higher up the socio-economic ladder I went, the more signs of excess I found. In private schools – and particularly the most expensive and elite ones – there are notably more types, compared to state school kids, who would choose a night on the bag over an evening spent binge-watching The Office.
Charles, 18, is the son of a hedge fund manager who studies at one of the most expensive and famous schools in the world. His school life appeared to be more Wolf of Wall Street than The History Boys.
"We had this guy join our year, and his dad was a proper Russian oligarch and playboy," he told me. "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, 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, [that] the school banned sixth-formers going home at weekends."
Kids from extremely wealthy and privileged backgrounds often experience less parental intervention, with nannies and boarding schools substituting for parents, and parents making up for their absence with cash and flash toys. "My mum and dad gave me pretty free rein since I was a young teenager," said Charles. "My au pair was a pushover, dad was always busy at work and my mum was always either at spas or on charity boards."
The drug and partying culture at another school where fees are over £35,000 a year came as a surprise to Alonso when he won a sixth-form scholarship that 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," he said. "At my new school it was the opposite."
As Alonso acclimatised to private school life, and was accepted by other students, he started to learn the culture and more secret inner workings of the famous school. The punishment for drinking and taking drugs is made clear on the school's website and in its handbook: expulsion. The reality when a student was caught was a little different. Alonso knew several pupils who were caught drinking, smoking weed and in possession of ecstasy and coke who got little more than a slap on the wrist and their weekend "going-out" privileges rescinded for a couple of weeks.
A member of staff who has worked at Alonso's school for 12 years told me the reasons for the disparity between the school's stated drug policy and the 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," they explained. "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 of this is crucial. A major driver 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 you don't move in circles where drugs are available, you are far less likely to take drugs. 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.
Annabelle, 18, who now goes to Durham University, confirms this. She left her ritzy boarding school with four A* grade A-levels and a grade-A cocaine and Adderall habit. "Cocaine was fun at weekends and the Adderall was for school time," she told me. "I know loads and loads of people who used it, especially the girls, around high-pressured times like exams."
While Annabelle and her friends scored their Adderall on the dark web in bulk, they bought their cocaine from another student, who got it from his dad's dealer. "It was by all accounts a bit farcical," said 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 laughed and described the drug-tier pricing of her and her friends' dealer: "For cocaine he had three different prices for 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."
While it's unfair to suggest all private and boarding schools are Bacchanalian centres of excess where kids are snorting lines 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 country. 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 isn't given a second thought if your family have millions in the bank.