Education: Just ask about Ecstasy: Pupils get straight answers on drugs in weekly advice sessions at a school in Norfolk. Fran Abrams reports

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The Independent Online
ALMOST every week a press headline highlights the growth of drug abuse among children. A nine-year-old boy is caught offering cannabis to classmates at a Lambeth primary school; a 13-year- old girl sells LSD at an independent secondary school in Newcastle. Each time such a story breaks, an almost audible sigh of relief emanates from other schools. This time it was someone else's problem.

But the issue is becoming increasingly hard to ignore, and it places headteachers and governors in a dilemma. If they set aside scarce time and resources to make pupils aware of the dangers of drug abuse, they risk being labelled as a school with a drug problem. If they do nothing, they risk being asked to explain their lack of pre-emptive action when a teenage drug-dealer is found on the premises.

Recent studies carried out at Manchester University found that more than one third of children aged 14 and 15 had taken illegal drugs. Half of the 15- and 16-year- olds questioned had tried them, and a quarter said they were regular users. Four out of 10 had taken cannabis, a quarter LSD, one fifth 'poppers' (pills that contain amyl nitrate), and 7 per cent had tried Ecstasy.

The response by schools to the problem has been patchy. While some have attempted to take action, others merely hope that a lecture from the local police or a Personal and Social Education lesson on drugs will do the trick.

Hamond's High School in Swaffham, Norfolk, is one that has decided to tackle the issue head-on. The school does not have a 'drug problem', and its headteacher, Robert Young, has not had to deal with a single drugs-related incident during his nine years in the job.

But after parents voiced fears about under-age drinking becoming a problem in Swaffham and about what Mr Young describes as 'the embryonic development of solvent abuse', staff at the school decided to forge links with the Community Alcohol and Drug Service (CADS) in King's Lynn.

Last year Paul Berry, drugs and HIV counsellor at CADS, and Gerry McKenna, its outreach worker, started to run a weekly drop-in at the school, at which pupils could approach them for confidential advice. Each Thursday they answer questions from anything up to 21 pupils. This term they are hosting a series of question- and-answer sessions with the school's new intake of 12-year-olds.

The CADS approach is to answer questions as honestly as possible and to avoid lecturing on the evils of drugs - an approach that is felt to be counter-productive. On a recent occasion, a 12-year-old asked whether either of the CADS representatives had ever taken drugs.

'Oh yes, of course,' they replied. Only that morning, they said, they had shared one substance with the Independent's reporter. After a moment's wide-eyed reflection, someone in the class remembered that caffeine, too, was a drug.

Most of the questions focused on the effects of drugs, although Mr McKenna received something of a grilling after he explained that part of his job was to give clean needles to addicts. 'Why do you do that? Why don't you tell them to stop it? Why can't you tell them to go to the police?' asked one boy.

Mr Berry explained that the job of the police was to uphold the law, and that they would be less interested in helping people with problems than CADS, whose job it was to help.

While the children's attitudes to drugs seemed simplistic, their knowledge of them showed that they were, at least, a topic of conversation. When asked what names they knew for drugs, they came up with a sizeable list, including speed, heroin, LSD, pot, smack, grass, E and white doves (Ecstasy pills with birds etched on to them).

'What's the most expensive drug?' asked one pupil. Mr McKenna explained that heroin was the most expensive, costing between pounds 80 and pounds 100 per gramme.

'Cannabis is quite expensive . . .' ventured another. Mr McKenna asked if anyone knew how much an eighth of an ounce of cannabis would cost. 'About pounds 15 or pounds 20,' replied one boy, who said he had heard it from his sister.

The CADS team later declared the session a success, and said several pupils had approached them afterwards to ask if they could come to the drop-in the following week.

In addition to the drop-in and the question-and-answer sessions, the team has also worked with sixth- form groups, with staff and with parents. Barry Gibson, the school's Personal and Social Education co- ordinator, said parents have reacted very positively to the scheme.

'The response I had was that they were pleased that the school was doing something about it, rather than ringing alarm bells. They had heard about the rave scene, and had become a little bit concerned.'

Between them, Mr McKenna and Mr Berry spent the equivalent of 27 days at the school in the first three terms of the scheme, and staff hope this will continue. News of the scheme is spreading and CADS has received other requests for help.

This will be welcomed by the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence, which says that as long as schools ignore the problem of teenage drug abuse it will continue to grow, because young people will not receive the advice they need. Many drug agencies are geared to adults and do not cater for the youth market, the institute believes.

Harry Shapiro, head of publications for the institute, said that while many schools include drug education in their programmes, few have contact with drug agencies. He said he knew of one other project in Newham, east London, which was similar to the one at Hamond's High School.

In inner-city areas more emphasis tends to be placed on the problem, he said, but often the quality of drug education depends on the enthusiasm of the teachers involved. 'Schools are not reluctant to embark on drug education, but often they find it difficult to respond to drug use on the premises other than through expulsions.'

Mr Shapiro said drug agencies could also do more to make themselves accessible to schools. 'Drug agencies, by their own admission, are not geared up for the needs of teenage users. By and large they are not even geared up to adult users of non-injected drugs.'

(Photograph omitted)