'20,000 expelled for drink or drugs'

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UP TO 20,000 children are suspended or expelled each year over drugs, drink or smoking incidents, drug campaigners said yesterday.

The Standing Conference on Drug Abuse (Scoda) said schools were too quick to throw out children if they were found with illegal drugs, and urged teachers to make every effort to keep offenders in mainstream classes.

The "drugs tsar", Keith Hellawell, will launch a series of guidelines for dealing with drug incidents today. He said that counselling or specially written behaviour "contracts" could prove more effective in many cases than calling in the police or the "ultimate sanction" of expulsion. A survey of 1,100 schools, done by research-ers at Manchester Metropolitan University, found that 1,800 children had been excluded from school on a temporary or permanent basis in the past two years.

Roger Howard, the Scoda chief executive, said the same trend repeated across the country would produce 10,000 to 20,000 exclusions a year.

He said: "Schools may be resorting to suspension or expulsion immediately after a drug-related incident, when a different course of action might be more appropriate. We want a guarantee that the school has tried everything else first."

Existing Government guidelines say head teachers would not normally be expected to expel a pupil for a first-time drug offence and recommend a suspension. Teachers are told to inform police of drug-related incidents, but the guidelines say the extent of officers' involvement should be worked out between police and schools.

Nigel de Gruchy, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said the survey greatly overestimated the scale of the problem.

He said: "In most cases of exclusion there has been a build up. Exclusion is appropriate as a way of saying that drugs are not tolerated."

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, which opens its annual conference today, defended the right of heads to expel offenders. He said: "There are a considerable number of people excluded for drugs-related incidents, either legal or illegal drugs. It's a problem for schools and one they have to deal with.

"If somebody brought drugs into schools and was selling them, there is no question that the head would be fully justified in doing an immediate permanent exclusion. We take a tough line and it's right to do so. Parents have a right to expect that when they send their children to school it is a drug-free zone. Schools that care for their reputation will want to ensure that is the case."