Magnus Linklater: Six of the best kinder than zero-tolerance

IT WAS furtive, secretive, and definitely against the law.

If this all sounds like something out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, then I dare say life was a bit like that at an independent school in those distant days. I began to wonder this week, however, whether the punishment was any more severe than what is currently administered at some Scottish schools for similar offences. Drugs, of course, have replaced alcohol as the unforgivable sin, and to be found smoking cannabis is considered every bit as serious a crime as downing vintage cognac. Last week, news came out that three boys had been expelled for it at Fettes, and at Edinburgh Academy, parents have been told that they may be asked to contribute 50 towards a drug test if their child is suspected of indulging in the noxious weed.

For a young pupil, being removed from school is a draconian punishment. Your academic career is blighted, your good name is tarnished, you may find it hard to secure a place at any decent establishment elsewhere. However brutal and degrading a beating was, at least it signalled the end of the affair; it meant you stayed in school, and, as far as your fellow-pupils were concerned , it did wonders for your credibility.

Let me rush to make it clear that I am not recommending the return of corporal punishment to our independent schools. I do wonder, however, whether the schools have found a fair substitute in disciplinary terms. Taking cannabis may be serious, but it is far less dangerous than consuming large quantities of spirits; I have yet to hear of anyone dying from smoking a reefer; for most adolescents these days it is almost a rite of passage. At the same time, the government is relaxing the laws on possession, and there is even a plan to introduce cannabis cafes to the douce streets of Edinburgh. Surely even the most high-minded of colleges cannot remain immune from the changing mores of the outside world.

That is not, however, the way the schools themselves see things. A school that takes fee-paying pupils is selling more than just a good education - it is offering a decent way of life and a strong moral code. Parents who shell out fees of up to 7,000 a year do so in part at least because they want to know that their children will be shielded from the crumbling standards of present-day life. In the fiercely competitive world of private education, it is not considered a good marketing ploy to say that your school is soft on drugs. When John Light, the headmaster of Edinburgh Academy, explained his reasons for charging parents 50 a time for drug tests on suspect pupils, he put it in the context of a wider society: "We are totally against the use of drugs, because they are illegal," he said. "Apart from the potential physical harm, we deplore the furtive practices which accompany such habits. Young men who spend their time secreted in basements and in back alleys become introverted and contemptuous. In addition they are conspicuous targets for serious pushers."

I thought back to our little group, lurking behind the fives courts, and wondered whether there was any real difference. There was no question that what we were doing was illegal, though I have no idea whether we were introverted or contemptuous - I think we were simply drunk. For most of us drinking illegally was simply one of the things you did at some stage or another to demonstrate your macho credentials. I do know, however, that if we had been caught and then expelled, it would have been a disaster.

In fact, the Academy seems to have decided that the pupil they caught smoking outside the school could stay on, provided he took random tests. At Fettes, on the other hand, three pupils who had been found with drugs, including one who had been smoking during the holidays, were thrown out immediately. The theory, undoubtedly, is that harsh penalties will indicate a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach and put off any other likely offenders. But when Prince Harry was caught doing exactly the same, he was allowed back to school. It is not a uniform standard.

I doubt if the zero-tolerance approach can be maintained for very much longer. Customs change, attitudes shift. The other day, visiting a school in Scotland, I was entertained in the headmaster’s study along with some highly intelligent and articulate teenage girls and boys. We were all offered a glass of wine - teachers and pupils alike. It seemed a perfectly civilised thing to do, and it showed a welcome measure of trust between staff and pupils. I look forward to the day when, instead of a gin and tonic, I am offered a carefully-rolled spliff as a relaxing alternative. I doubt if it will mean that the roof has fallen in.

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Tuesday 24 April 2012

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