The heads of the schools are said to be "stunned" by these findings. A report from the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference argues that illegal drug-taking "is no longer limited to a disaffected and rebellious few. It is part of the culture of teenagers".
It suggests that schools should end the "zero option" of expelling pupils for all drug offences. Instead, they should concentrate on drug education and random tests for pupils suspected of using drugs.
While drugs are the greatest concern for heads of boarding schools, the report says, day-school heads are more concerned about the use of alcohol. More than half of boarding schools, but only a quarter of day schools, reported that they had at least one drug-related incident a year. The heads recommend that senior pupils be issued with identity cards and that staff in all pubs and off-licences be urged to request to see them.
The survey of 2,400 pupils in the 20 schools, carried out by the Schools Health Education Unit, found that slightly fewer 14-year-olds in public schools had used drugs than 14-year-olds in state schools. One in three heads expected to find as few as 5 per cent of their younger pupils had tried illegal drugs.
Only among girls is drug- taking more prevalent in private schools than in state schools. Cannabis is by far the most frequently used drug, and six out of ten pupils believe it is not harmful. Poppers come next but Ecstasy is very rare.
The report is firmly against the legalisation of cannabis and challenges pupils' belief that it is safe. But it argues that schools should be flexible. "While it is arguable that the `zero option' approach of prohibition and threats may well have inhibited even greater proliferation, it is clear that, by itself, it will not stop or solve the problem. We emphasise that this is not a reason for abandoning it, particularly in schools which have confidence in it, but many schools are choosing to modify it."
Boarding schools take a tougher line than day schools. Just over half - compared with a fifth of day schools - expel students automatically for bringing drugs into school. Three- quarters of boarding schools - but less than a third of day schools - use drug testing.
Patrick Tobin, a past president of the conference, said both the police and the Government needed to do more to break the "chain of supply" of drugs to young pupils, usually outside of school. Mr Tobin, head of Stewart's Melville College and Mary Erskine School in Edinburgh, said: "If I pursue the drugs chain in Edinburgh, I find it almost unchecked. I see no evidence that the police are interested in the small fry."
Dr John Barrett, head of the Leys School, Cambridge, chaired the working party that produced the report. He uses the more flexible approach to drug-taking incidents, which increasing numbers of public schools are adopting.
"We say that if you are involved in drugs in any way then you are liable to be expelled. I would always expel someone for dealing in drugs. But we have some flexibility in the policy and I may use suspension for some pupils if I have reason to believe they feel they have made a serious mistake."
Dr Barrett secures the written agreement of all parents to conduct drug tests on those pupils suspected of taking drugs or those found in possession of drugs.
He said he would suspend a pupil who had used drugs and who had no previous record of drug-taking.
James Sabben-Clare, head of Winchester and this year's HMC chairman, said that any pupil involved with drugs was liable to be expelled but exceptions were made.Reuse content