In the face of horrific headlines such as the 11-year-old found with 50 bags of heroin in his satchel, Britain's parents and teachers are struggling with how to relate to children's frightening awareness of drugs. Nick Tester trawls the country for answers. Illustration by Dettmer E Otto
he audience has just been asked to name illegal drugs. Arms shoot into the air. "Ecstasy", declares a voice, before adding, "E". Others quickly join in. "Cocaine", "marijuana", "speed", they shout. "Dope", "grass", "heroin". It's over one hour into their drug education lesson, but the 10- and 11-year-old pupils at Intake Primary School in Doncaster are showing no signs of weariness with the subject. Indeed, they are anxious to reveal their startlingly in-depth knowledge of it.

The children are watching a play called Jacket In! in which an abandoned jacket is used as a metaphor for drugs. The mixture of wry songs, sharp script and fluent interaction with the audience is intended to open up discussion of the subject. It also gives the children a chance to have their questions answered and work out how to respond if they were in a situation involving drugs.

The play is performed by two community actors, David Riley ("Moz"), 23, and David Matthews ("Charlie"), 37. "So why," asks Charlie, "did Moz not want to take his jacket off?" One pupil knows the answer - "He was addicted."

Intake is one of more than 50 primary schools in Doncaster which staged Jacket In! in the five weeks leading up to Christmas. According to Riley and Matthews, its pupils' awareness of illegal drugs is typical of the age group across the city. "It's incumbent on us to treat their knowledge with respect," says headteacher Liz Paver. "We need to start with what children already know."

And the evidence is mounting that they know a lot more than many adults realise. Indeed, there's a good chance they'll be better informed about illicit drugs than most grown-ups. It's reckoned that about half of all eight-year-olds are familiar with the slang names for illegal drugs. Now, as incidents emerge of primary school pupils being caught with controlled substances, the concern is growing that children are experimenting with drugs at earlier ages than ever before.

One morning, three months ago, an 11-year-old wandered into Craigton Primary School, Glasgow, carrying in his satchel 50 packets of heroin worth pounds 500. In another case, teachers discovered a nine-year-old boy with cannabis in his pocket at Whitings Hill Primary School in Barnet, north London. The Government's so-called drugs tsar, Keith Hellawell, predicts that by the year 2005 up to 80 per cent of 10-year-olds will have tried at least one illicit drug.

Lesley Green set up a counselling service called Parents and Partners and Drugs (PPAD) in Stratford-upon-Avon as a result of her own experience with her drug-taking teenage son. "When I first found out, I had an awful vision of my son lying dead, a syringe in his arm. In fact, he was caught with amphetamines and cannabis. But my ignorance of drug abuse made me think the worst."

Her attitude was typical, she says. "I refused, at first, to admit my child was experimenting with illegal drugs. I thought I'd bought him up properly and I associated drugs with belonging to the gutter, something that `other' children did. I was wrong and that view is no longer tenable. Now all children are at risk, no matter what their family backgrounds. You know, nowadays, they don't just smoke cigarettes behind the school bike-shed."

Green recalls how she was woken up one night at 1am by a young dealer trying to sell drugs to her son. "I sent him packing by shouting at him from my bedroom window and threatening to set my dog loose on him. The dealer shouted back that I was "a little smartarse", but he didn't stay long to argue and I never saw him again. I then gave my boy a huge whack across his face."

Another mother, Lynn Clare, in Ellesmere Port in Cheshire, went through an experience just as traumatic as Green's when first told her son was taking drugs. "Like most parents, I was frightened that experimentation was going to lead to death," she recalls. "But looking back, I now realise that this is just part of growing up and that most kids come out the other side unscathed."

Like Green, she helped set up a counselling and advice service. Called Parents Against Drug Abuse (PADA), it is one of 50 such community organisations now operating in the UK. "Most groups like mine are formed from pain," she says. During the six years it has been running she reckons to have personally spoken to more than 5,000 parents. She laments the fact that most parents find it as difficult to talk to their children about drugs as about sex.

Last month, the 17-year-old son of Marion Hill in Liverpool was released after serving two and half years of a three-year custodial sentence for heroin use. Hill decided to share her experiences with parents of primary school children in her area. "Like most mums, I wanted to fix things," she explains. "I soon discovered that you must get educated. Unfortunately, too many of the younger mothers I meet think they know enough about drugs - when they don't - and they think that primary school children are too young to learn. Sometimes I might get just four parents turn up at a training session, which is pathetic if the school has over 300 children. But I'm optimistic, because that's four fewer parents who are ignorant." The national advisory body Release has run a confidential Drugs in Schools helpline for the past four years. It is a freephone number, so children's calls won't be logged on their parents' phone bills. Each year the number of calls to Release rises, says director Mike Goodman. About 2,500 were taken during 1998. "A lot are from parents who've found something in their child's bedroom or coat pocket. Others are from professionals, like teachers, who want to know what to do if they discover a child with illegal drugs. Do they, for instance, go straight away to the police? Should they dispose of the drugs and, if so, how? Some of the calls are from children as young as eight and nine wanting more information." Frances Potter, who runs the helpline, says Release tells teachers who discover drugs to get rid of them straight away as it is an offence to possess them. Young callers are made to understand the law and given advice on how to reduce the risks to their health.

Of course, children who take drugs will not inevitably end up dead; indeed the number who do is still relatively small - there are an average of 240 drugs-related deaths a year and very few of them are experimenting youngsters. Goodman calculates that an average child has more chance of dying as a result of a surfboard or course-fishing accident than through popping Ecstasy tablets. Nor do drug users automatically become addicts. Most young people experiment to try to discover what all the fuss is about. A recent study in Wales found that while almost 12 per cent of young people said they had sniffed glue, 75 per cent of them said they did it only once or twice and, having tried and not liked it, never bothered again.

Goodman says it is important to retain a sense of perspective. "It's often no more than a dare. The idea that schools are full of playground pushers is a myth. After all, who in their right mind is going to take a joint into his or her school?"

But what sort of action should schools take? The traditional response has been simply to exclude miscreant pupils. The Barnet boy caught with cannabis in his pocket became the youngest pupil yet to be permanently excluded for drug possession. Headteacher Maureen McGoldrick refuses to comment on the incident but Anne Jarvis, chair of Barnet Council's education committee, argues that the exclusion "was a sensible precaution and we appreciate why she [McGoldrick] has taken it".

Government ministers think otherwise. Expecting separate and often isolated organisations to pick up the pieces on their own is not sufficient to meet the sheer size of the challenge, they chime. Inclusion - not exclusion - is the engine of contemporary social policy. Mike Goodman at Release agrees: youngsters kicked out of school risk becoming more vulnerable, more likely than ever to fall prey to the lure of a serious drug culture.

Christine Cosker, headteacher of Ecclesbourne Primary School, in Islington, north London, reinforces this view: "I'm not afraid of making mistakes that are criticised by parents, or which get me in the local paper. But I'm constantly worried about doing something, such as excluding a pupil, that puts the child's life in peril."

Goodman warns that the youngsters with the really severe problems are already outside the school system. "Sadly some schools still see illegal drugs as the great evil of our age and think that children found using them should automatically be stigmatised and criminalised. Often schools adopt this hard line because they believe it will send out signals to attract the `right' sort of parents to the school."

He reckons he gets about 10 calls a week from parents whose children have been excluded by schools for drug-related incidents. "Summary justice is being meted out. Sometimes the school has broken the law itself, by refusing to call the police in right away. Other times there are doubts about the way they've got the evidence out of children, though there are no cases yet of schools beating the information out of them. Then there is the refusal to allow parents to be present when children are being interviewed by teachers. Police evidence gathered in this way would be totally inadmissible."

No trade union or professional body representing teachers would admit that their members might be guilty of breaking the law. But Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers - the third biggest staffroom organisation, which also represents most private school teachers - says schools are responsible for educating all children and don't welcome disruptive behaviour: "How can you expect teachers to teach when some pupils are drugged up to the eyeballs?"

Another draconian approach used increasingly by private schools is drug- testing. In some cases this is done randomly, though in most instances it is carried out when a pupil is suspected of drug abuse. Kits cost as little as pounds 20 and are readily available. But, more often than not, they produce inconclusive results that would fail to convince a court of law.

These factors don't deter the Rev Dr John Barrett, headmaster of The Leys School, Cambridge, a leading independent secondary, catering for just under 500 girl and boy boarders and day students. He admits to having to carry out about two tests a term. "You could argue that random testing is distasteful, not very positive, and doesn't encourage an atmosphere of trust," he says. "But most schools test if they feel they have reasonable grounds for suspicion. The tests cannot be carried out without the parent's permission and, anyway, are mostly done to eliminate suspicion."

Mike Goodman of Release insists, however, that drug-testing is like "looking under the bed for Communists". "The practitioners are intolerant snoopers," he adds, "hell-bent on an appalling and humiliating witch-hunt."

He is supported by Ellesmere Port mother Lynn Clare, who tries to deter parents from resorting to drug-testing their children. "I don't agree with these urine tests because any relationship with your children would go down the pan pretty fast if you did so. You're basically saying to your child, `I don't trust you.' "

Drug education, says the Government, should now start with five-year- olds, and every primary school has a legal duty to refer to drugs in statutory National Curriculum science lessons. Some schools begin even earlier. At Broad Square Infant School in Liverpool, for instance, three- and four- year-olds have rudimentary role-play lessons in health and safety. Headteacher Judith Salmon says: "You have to start at the earliest age, otherwise drugs become covert and then a commodity. Our work is all about life skills, looking after yourself. Developing confidence and self-esteem is far more powerful than saying `don't do this' or `don't do that'. It must become part of the intrinsic curriculum in all schools."

In November, the Government announced that more than pounds 22m would be spent on drug education in schools during the subsequent 18 months. Meanwhile, Keith Hellawell is about to start the second year of his 10-year campaign to fight drugs. "People talk about the Government `waging war' on drug users," he says. "This is not the case. Many of these drug users are young people and we don't want to wage war on them. We do, however, want to fight the drug barons who prey on our children. We want to hit these evil dealers where it hurts - in their pockets - by seizing their assets and using the money on drug prevention, education and treatment work."

Special Drug Action Teams have now been established in most authorities. During the past academic year more than 100,000 teachers - about one quarter of the entire profession - attended drug training courses. The range, quality and availability of materials to help teachers has never been better. Myriad multi-agency partnerships are being formed. Many schools have turned to their pupils for advice in what should be taught and how. Primary schools in Nottinghamshire, for instance, actively seek the views of children to help define their school policies. One survey last year discovered that a third of secondary school pupils thought their teachers didn't know enough about drugs. And almost half felt their teachers were "not very aware" or "not at all aware".

Gradually, examples of good policy are being disseminated and implemented. In Teachers Do Drugs, an unpublished report of work carried out in schools in Lewisham and Lambeth, south London, during 1997 and 1998, pupils played a key part in helping their teachers draw up successful education programmes. The style of these lessons is a long way from the shock-horror headlines: "School bosses set to tackle playground pushers", "Children must have lessons on the horror of drugs" and "Nine-year-olds to face drug tests". What works for newsrooms doesn't work in classrooms. Exhortations to "just say no" and using scare tactics, such as presenting graphic images, frightening case studies, emotionally loaded videos and personal anecdotes, don't work either. They may glamorise drugs and even encourage use.

In Ellesmere Port, Lynn Clare's experience of drugs in her family taught her a simple lesson: if you want a child not to do something, then telling them not to do it usually backfires. "I tried and it failed. But with more information about what he was doing, I could have talked to my son. If you don't know about drugs, how can you have a halfway decent talk with your child?"

Sheila Dainton, an education policy adviser for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, agrees that "fear-arousal approaches" are rarely effective in influencing pupils' behaviour positively. "At best they are a source of mild amusement," she says. "At worst they leave teachers open to ridicule, if not downright contempt, which is hardly helpful to anyone. Teachers must be wary of walking into a lion's den."

The results of the recently completed "Project Charlie" (Chemical Abuse Resolution Lies In Education), a Home Office study of drug education in primary schools, may hold out some hope. It suggests that the best approach might be through teaching children life skills such as communication, decision-making, resolving conflicts and relating to others.

The young children at Intake Primary School, Doncaster, have certainly made their minds up about the bad effects of taking illegal drugs. "You can die", "it's against the law", "you might lose your family and friends" and "little kids might take them from dealers", they respond.

After providing several autographs, David Riley and David Matthews pack up their equipment and prepare to move on to the next school on their round. They believe that children who fail to get answers to their questions are getting the rawest deal of all. That said, doing Jacket In! is also an education for the actors, says Riley. "We need to keep up with the jargon and every week we hear two or three new words. The children are the ones creating the language. We can and must learn from them"

Release Drugs in Schools helpline: 0808 8000800