Exclusive: Eton College funds research into why young people take psychoactive ‘legal highs’

Eton College is funding research into what motivates young people to take so-called “legal highs”, with the aim of improving its drug education strategies, TES can reveal.

The school’s lower master (deputy head) Dr Bob Stephenson, said Eton was sponsoring the study because he believed the drugs – legally referred to as “new psychoactive substances” – were set to become “a major social problem” affecting universities and schools in the coming years.

He said the University of Cambridge research would help him to make drugs education at the UK’s most prestigious boarding school “as good as we can get it”, and could assist other schools in addressing the issue.

Dr Stephenson, a qualified neuropharmacologist, said the drugs – which are currently legal but can have stronger psychoactive effects than illegal drugs such as cocaine – pose a particular threat to teenagers as they act on the parts of the brain that are developing during adolescence.

Five years ago, the drug known as “meow meow”, or mephedrone, which was linked to scores of deaths, was banned by the government after it became popular among school pupils.

“From my point of view, the safer we can keep children the better, but in order to do that you have to get them to understand the risks better. It’s no good frightening them – you’ve got to have messages that they will respond to from an intellectual point of view,” said Dr Stephenson.

He admitted that pupils at Eton – like pupils everywhere – would be exposed to both legal and illegal highs, especially at parties, but denied it had become a particular problem in the school.

The big danger, Dr Stephenson said, was the fact that “legal highs” are not against the law and can be sold in shops – as long as they are labelled “not for human consumption”. Young people might presume, he said, that they are accredited to an official body, when actually they are completely unregulated.

And he called on ministers to take the issue of education about legal highs seriously.

“We work very hard on our education on drugs…in terms of education nationally, it’s something the government has to really consider, from a PSHE point of view, which the government doesn’t seem to be pushing now at all. It’s really important as actually the people who are the most vulnerable are adolescents,” he said.

The £140,000 three-year study will initially look at groups of students from the University of Cambridge, some of whom take legal highs, and put them through a range of tasks – such as tests on working memory and moral judgement.

Dr Stephenson said: “I want to identify any differences between those who might be tempted to take legal highs and those who are tempted to take the more conventional type of drugs, and also get underneath the risk-taking element of this in adolescents, especially the bright students.

“If we really want to have effective drugs education we’ve got to understand it from the psychological point of view, and understanding adolescent motivation is key.”

Under Eton’s drugs policy, boys caught taking drugs on the campus are expelled, but anyone found to have involvement with drugs off-site, or who is suspected of taking drugs, is offered a second chance. To stay at the school, they must sign a contract to stay clean, and submit themselves to random drugs testing.

The research has been welcomed by Joe Hayman, chief executive of the PSHE Association, which is campaigning for education on legal highs to be made statutory. He said: “This is really important research on a big issue facing both independent and state school pupils.

“We are really pleased to see the recognition of the value of PSHE education from leading independent schools such as Eton College, and there is much that can be learned from their good practice.”

Dr Stephenson spoke to TES just weeks after the second reading of the Psychoactive Substances Bill, which will introduce a blanket ban on the production, distribution, sale and supply of new psychoactive substances.

He is a trustee of the charity Angelus Foundation, which is backing the bill and putting pressure on the government to improve drugs education in schools.

The research, which is in its pilot phase, could be extended to look at the effects of “smart” drugs designed to improve cognitive function, he said.

The project, instigated and overseen by Dr Stephenson, will be carried out by researchers at the MRC/Wellcome Trust Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, University of Cambridge. It is being funded by Eton College and the Wallitt Foundation.

The study is part of wider drive by Eton to put itself at the forefront of educational research. Read about how the school has turned an Edwardian section of its campus into a futuristic classroom and research centre in Friday’s TES magazine, available at all good newsagents.

To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

Legal highs: key facts

“New psychoactive substances” are products chemically designed to mimic drugs that are already banned.

The drugs are sold under a wide variety of brand names such as “Clockwork Orange”, “Bliss”, “Mary Jane”, “Gogaine” and “China White”.

They have been directly linked to deaths, poisonings and emergency hospital admissions.

There are three main categories: stimulants, sedatives and hallucinogens.

New substances are banned by the government on a regular basis when they are found to be dangerous, but the manufacturers keep reformulating the recipes to create products that are then legal.

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