Ed Cumming

School drinking is the best kind

Head teachers may try to control it, but alcohol is the most fun between the ages of 13 and 18

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.

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