Education: Hard decisions about soft drugs: Judith Judd reports on changing school reactions to pupils taking cannabis, and Harry Pugh meets a mother who called in the police

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Eighteen pupils at a Gwent comprehensive are suspended, a boy is expelled from Portree High School on Skye, two boys are expelled from Romsey community school in Hampshire, five girls are expelled from fee-paying St Mary's school at Ascot. The alleged offences are the same: taking or supplying cannabis. And the list seems endless.

So prevalent is drug-taking among young people that even the attitude of the police is changing. Last week, Ray Kendall, secretary-general of Interpol, called for the possession of all drugs by users to be decriminalised, and Keith Hellawell, West Yorkshire's chief constable, said that in parts of the country, soft drugs effectively already were, since police only cautioned users for a first offence. Last month, a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research argued that 'young people's drug-taking is rational, logical and responsible'. Parents and teachers, it said, should be much more concerned about alcohol and tobacco.

Many parents will find it hard to take the report's advice. Yet they, too, are having to think again about how young people found with soft drugs are treated. Surveys show that around half of all secondary school pupils have tried drugs and that some nine- and 10-year-olds have experimented with them. In theory, parents want schools to take a tough line on drugs. In practice, if one of their children is excluded from school for drug offences, they are unhappy.

A group of parents at Whitgift, a Croydon independent school, formed a campaign group after 10 pupils were expelled for smoking cannabis. Juliet Pennington, mother of a boy who was expelled from a Hertfordshire comprehensive in his GCSE year for smoking cannabis, wrote to a national newspaper to argue that his punishment was neither civilised nor useful. The mother of a pupil at fee-paying Hereford Cathedral School protested to the Independent after her daughter, another GCSE candidate, was excluded after the school alleged she had been smoking cannabis.

In public many independent schools take a tough line on drugs because they believe that is what fee-paying parents want. According to the Equitable Schools Book, which outlines discipline policies, Eton would expect to rusticate or expel those caught smoking cannabis on the premises, Winchester says 'those involved with drugs may expect to be expelled' and Cheltenham Ladies' College says anyone caught smoking cannabis on the premises would be dismissed.

However, there is sometimes a difference between what is said and what is done. Vivian Anthony, secretary of the Headmasters' Conference, says: 'The policy is that our heads would regard use of drugs as a matter likely to lead to expulsion. In reality, I suspect some schools have modified that.'

On the one hand, James Flecker, head of Ardingly College in Sussex, who expelled eight pupils last term, says: 'We have two people we need to look at. One is the person who is caught. The other is everyone else in the school who will be affected by the decision. If pupils hear the head is a bit soft on drugs they are going to have a go.'

On the other, David Jewell at Haileybury describes his policy as 'a New Testament one: to condemn the sin and forgive the sinner. Nobody caught using them would be expelled.' Talks to educate pupils and parents on drugs are organised. The school makes a distinction between those who use and those who supply drugs. The latter would expect a suspension and possibly expulsion.

The attitude of state schools is equally varied, although John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says: 'My impression is that a great majority of schools faced with users and traders in cannabis would throw them out. Some schools would draw a distinction between users and pedlars. Others might not suspend as to mention it would put the wind up parents.'

Yet there appears to be a growing recognition among heads that the solution of exclusion is unsatisfactory. At Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire, David Kenningham, the head, is adamantly opposed to permanent exclusions. 'Pupils found in possession of cannabis are normally readmitted after three days and those found dealing after 10. The school offers a wide-ranging drugs education programme. When a group of year-11 pupils was found with cannabis at Christmas, there were long talks involving their parents and governors, and the pupils were readmitted.'

For those on both sides of the argument there are difficulties. Cannabis is illegal and its use can lead pupils into the criminal community. Yet the parental grievance about ending a student's career for a now commonplace activity is understandable. Schools already face difficulties in deciding whom to expel if, say, 40 students have been at a party where cannabis is circulating. A head cannot show 40 pupils the door without tearing the school apart. If a few are expelled, parents complain of scapegoating.

Some pupils are simply passed round the system. Ardingly accepts pupils who have been expelled from other schools for drug-taking provided they have weekly meetings with the chaplain and regular urine tests. Others accept them without any conditions.

Louise Kidd, head of Rutland Sixth Form College, argues that schools need to move away from the easy solutions of automatic penalties. 'Schools get rid of students for publicity reasons, because they want to say they have dealt with the problem. You have to take a longer look.' She says a proper drug education programme, counselling and parental involvement take longer but work better.

THE MOTHER WHO SHOPPED HER SON

Susan Jones reported her 16-year-old son, Scott, to the police after he came home from school high on cannabis. Later Scott marched out of the house after a row during which he punched and kicked her. But she has no regrets and insists she would do the same again.

Mrs Jones, 38 and recently divorced, lives in Cheltenham. Scott is the eldest of her four children. He was preparing for his GCSEs at Arle School last month when he told his sister he had bought joints for 75p each in the playground.

A couple of days later Scott came home during the evening. Susan recalls: 'He staggered as he crossed the lounge and he had a stupid grin on his face. He was saying silly things like 'Hi Mumsy. All right, Mumsy'.

'I honestly believe these softer drugs like cannabis lead to hard drugs. I had dreadful visions of my son finishing up in the gutter in a few years' time: all that promise he'd been showing in tatters, his life ruined. Perhaps even dead. I spoke to Scott about it, but he denied taking anything.

'If he had said, 'OK Mum, I did it. It was wrong', I'd have given him a very firm warning that if he ever took it again I would go to the police. But I reasoned that going to the police was the only way I could make sure he'd stop.'

After she rang the police, two officers came to the house and arrested him. They took him to the police station and gave him a stern warning about doing it again and let him go.

The school's headmaster, Ian Rance, expelled both Scott and the boy who sold him the cannabis. Mr Rance said: 'It's extraordinary that you should want to drag this family through the press again, on an episode which essentially happened outside the school.'

(Photograph omitted)

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