Last December it was reported that Ampleforth and Rugby schools both have new on-site bars, where pupils are allowed to drink in moderation. ‘We are trying to create somewhere where [the pupils] can let their hair down but we’re all on call,’ said David Lambon, the school’s first lay headmaster. ‘It’s a fine balance with children of that age — they need to be treated like adults and feel independent.’
The only shock was that this was presented as news. Booze and sex are the death and taxes of adolescence: they’re unavoidable, so you might as well find a way to manage them. Schools have had provision around alcohol since the days when small beer was served instead of dodgy water. It’s one area where boarding schools — or day schools with a boarding element — seem to have a clear difference from day schools. Thanks to their greater in loco parentis responsibilities, boarding schools have to handle the booze issue. Some of these are formal: bars or smart dinners, but when I was at school at least, there were plenty of informal boozeathons too.
‘It’s part of life,’ says the aptly named Nigel Lashbrook, headmaster of Oakham School, Rutland. ‘Teenagers want to take risks and try things out. We want our pupils to get used to the idea that it’s something they can do, if they wish, but which doesn’t have to be linked with going out and getting absolutely blotto. It can happen in a controlled setting.’
Sensible words, of course, but the problem, for boarding schools in particular, is the risk that they might allow teen-agers to get absolutely blotto within a broadly controlled environment. Going on the smash around your teachers comes with the added frisson of transgression (because you never know when you might be busted) but also of protection: if something goes badly wrong, someone is there to look after you.
At our school, the drunken focal point was an event called House Singing. Golly it was fun. Once a year, each house prepared a pop song and performed it in front of the rest of the school in the grand old assembly hall. Teachers judged which was the least bad (they were all bad). Our house definitely performed Blur’s ‘Parklife’ and ‘Come On Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners — I can’t remember the others. Not remembering much was one of the principles of House Singing, and anyway, for the pupils the music was entirely incidental to the main activity: drinking as much as you could get away with.
It was held at 7 p.m. on a Friday before half-term. Lessons finished at four, so everyone had a three-hour window to tank up before things kicked off. The school was half-day, half-boarding, so older boys went to the shops while others ransacked their parents’ fridges the night before. Rucksacks clinked heavily with bottles of Smirnoff Ice and cheap white wine. By the time the ceremony started, the school had transformed into a 700-strong mob wailing out-of-tune chart numbers. Only the thinnest pretence of order was maintained.
A survey of my friends revealed an astonishing variety of ‘drunk at school’ stories. Beneath the patina of bravado they displayed an impressive amount of nous, brio and entrepreneurial spirit. Nod-and-a-wink agreements with pub landlords. Tactics for avoiding breath-alysers. Effective breath fresheners. Tales of camaraderie to rival the Vietnam war. Lessons in talking to adults: one respondent said that, after one spree, he confessed that lots of the wine had been drunk alongside tiramisu.
‘Was it dry or sweet wine?’ the master inquired.
‘A sauvignon blanc.’
‘A sauvignon blanc, with tiramisu? What kind of an idiot does that?’
There were get-rich-quick schemes, too. The Licensing Act 2003 made it easier for local authorities to stop schools from running bars, and many of the old ones were shut (hence why the Rugby and Ampleforth bars made the news). One way around this was a token system, where parents could buy a certain number of tokens for use at school. Of course, in these places a ‘roaring black market’ in tokens, as one of my respondents put it, immediately sprang up. One correspondent said he worked out how to forge them. We wonder where the British Mark Zuckerbergs are: in boarding schools is the answer, finding out ways to smuggle cans of Red Stripe to the fourth-formers. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well.
More than that, however, school drinking is the best kind of drinking. All of booze’s rich promise is realised between 13 and 18, when going on the piss is reckless, romantic and free of serious consequences, chiefly hangovers. At school we could run to the pub at 4.30 p.m. and drink six of the house ales — vile, but even in 2003 priced at a keen 99p before 5 o’clock — and get up at 7 a.m. to finish homework before assembly without even the faintest hint of a hangover. If I tried to pull that kind of stunt off today I’d probably have to take the day off.
Like so many great traditions, House Singing couldn’t last. Someone was sick on the shoes of the headmaster, a fine educator but not the kind of man on whose shoes it was advisable to be sick. The girls’ boarding house came in for a certain amount of unsavoury leering. The event was first moved to midweek and then retired altogether. Many schools have yet to return to the kind of bar system they had for much of the last century.
I would like to say that, like a huge game of adolescent drunkenness whack-a-mole, the drunkenness now simply appears somewhere else, but the facts aren’t on my side. British young people are better behaved than they have been for years. According to the ONS, in the past decade the number of teetotal 16- to 24-year-olds has risen 40 per cent. In a permissive era, young people are rebelling with less shagging, booze and drugs than they’ve had for years.
‘I haven’t done the research myself, but my instinct is that they are getting better behaved,’ confirms Lashbrook. ‘The other day I had a dinner for the prefects and I’d say more than half of them stuck to soft drinks.’ For the decreasing numbers of his charges caught on the sauce, sanctions still apply. He says that while they have sanctions for being drunk or more seriously for supplying drink, ‘the biggest mistake a teenager can make is not learning from the first one’.
Not learning from our mistakes: a justification for escalating punishment and a good summary of the human condition — best learned with a packet of crisps.