UK: How Pupils Are Tested for Drugs

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  1. by Matthew Taylor, education correspondent, The Guardian, (Source:Guardian)
    11 Jan 2005

    Guardian Invited to Witness School's Controversial Scheme

    As they wait patiently for the teacher to call out their names at morning registration, the pupils at Abbey High School know that today it could be their turn. For the past week, alongside the usual messages concerning the day-to-day business of running a busy secondary school, the roll-call has contained several small envelopes addressed to individual children. Inside a note tells them to make their way to the school's Orange Room on the first floor.

    Here among pastel shades and tasteful prints, the children, some as young as 11, are tested for a range of drugs including cannabis, heroin, cocaine and ecstasy.

    The school in Faversham, Kent, sparked controversy by introducing random voluntary testing to tackle the issue of drug use among pupils. Its decision has seen youngsters and staff thrust into the limelight, with reporters and television crews from across Europe bombarding the school with phone calls and interview requests.

    Yesterday the Guardian was the first newspaper to be invited to talk to children and teachers about the scheme and whether it will succeed in turning youngsters away from drugs.

    "It's taken a long time but we are finally getting started," said the headteacher Peter Walker. "This is something we have worked on since February and it is part of a determined effort to look after the wider interests of our children."

    As breaktime comes to a chaotic and noisy end, the Orange Room offers a sanctuary of calm. Inside, Daniel Kelly has just undergone a mock test to show how the procedure works, with its mouth swabs and specimen tubes.

    "I think it is a good idea because it will help find the people who are taking the drugs and help them stop," said the 12-year-old.

    "And it may stop people from starting drugs in the first place because they'll be worried about being caught."

    Civil liberties groups and drugs charities are not so sure. In the past week they have questioned the effectiveness of the scheme, claiming it could stigmatise children and increase truancy levels among those already at risk.

    Martin Barnes, the chief executive of DrugScope, who sits on the government's advisory council on the misuse of drugs, said: "We do not accept that testing pupils as young as 11 is a proportionate response to general concerns about drug use."

    Barry Hugill, a spokesman for civil rights group, Liberty, said the tests ran the risk of "turning perfectly innocent children into supposed drug abusers. If they refuse to be tested, the implication is obvious: they've got something to hide."

    But Mr Walker, who has been involved in drug education for more than 10 years, insists the initiative has the backing of the vast majority of parents, pupils and staff.

    "We have written to all the parents and of those that replied 86% have given their permission. Overall, two-thirds have actively supported what we are doing which is a fairly impressive response rate." He said most "heart-warming" was the fact that 40 members of staff had volunteered to be tested.

    But there are dissenting voices at the school. Thirteen-year-old Robert Warren says he will refuse the test if selected.

    "I didn't like the sound of this when I first heard about it and I still don't," he said. "It costs a lot of money and I don't think it will work. You would have to be pretty stupid to take drugs in school and people can refuse whenever they want so what are they actually going to find out from all this effort?

    "If kids who do take drugs want help there are lots of places for them outside school, this just seems like a big waste of time."

    Although Faversham is known locally as the "brown town" because of its heroin problem, Mr Williams insists the school is no worse than others around the country. "It is probably better because we are proactive rather than pretending it doesn't exist," he said.

    The scheme has already won support from Tony Blair and the Conservative party leader Michael Howard.

    Lesley Temple, who runs the school's extensive student welfare programme, including the random drugs tests, insisted it was right to tackle the issue head-on. "Denying that drugs are an issue for young people is the same as schools who say bullying is not a problem - it is a disservice to young people to behave like that.

    "Drugs are getting cheaper and more and more people are taking them and we simply can't ignore that. The tests give the children a reason to say no. Even in the past week I have heard them saying to each other 'I can't take drugs because it will show up in the tests'. Giving them that reason and excuse to stand up to peer pressure is invaluable."

    Under the scheme, pupils are picked at random by a computer and if a child tests positive the parents will be called in and offered support and guidance. The results are only known to the headteacher and only in extreme cases will students be expelled.

    "We are not looking to kick anybody out," said Mr Walker. "We want to help these children and their parents."

    The tests, which are being sponsored by a tabloid newspaper and the manufacturers of the testing kit, will initially run for six months.

    "So far the response has been quite incredible," said Mr Walker, brandishing a copy of an article about the school that appeared yesterday in the Times of Oman. "The school has featured on talk shows in France and the US and this week we have two television crews from Spain coming in to film."

    He said there had also been huge interest from other schools around the UK.

    "At the moment they are sitting on the fence and watching because it is such a hot political potato but there is real interest out there in what we are doing."

    The school will assess the impact of the initiative on pupil behaviour and exam results before deciding whether to continue the tests at the end of the trial period.


    The Department of Health's most recent survey reveals:

    42% of pupils said they had been offered drugs, with cannabis being by far the most common

    21% of pupils said they had taken drugs in the previous year

    8% of 11-year-olds said they had taken drugs in the past 12 months. That figure rose to

    38% among 15-year-olds

    12% of those surveyed said they had taken drugs in the past month, with 1% saying they took drugs most days, 2% at least once a week, and 3% once or twice a month

    13% of pupils aged 11 to 15 said they had tried cannabis in the past 12 months

    4% of 11-15-year-olds said they had taken a class A drug in the past year; 1% said they had taken heroin and 1% said they had taken cocaine

    Source - Department of Health survey of 10,000 pupils carried out in the autumn term of 2003 and published in 2004

    Pubdate: Tue, 11 Jan 2005
    Source: Guardian, The (UK)
    Copyright: 2005 Guardian Newspapers Limited
    Author: Matthew Taylor, education correspondent, The Guardian
    Cited: DrugScope
    Cited: Liberty
    Bookmark: (Drug Testing)

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