Kelly backs random testing to tackle schools' growing drug problem

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The Independent Online

The Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, has given her backing to random drug testing in schools, praising it as a "hugely effective" way of tackling substance abuse.

Ms Kelly told the annual conference of the NASUWT teaching union in Birmingham yesterday that she had been impressed by the success of a scheme at Abbey School in Faversham, Kent, last year.

She said she had "an open mind" as to whether the initiative should be introduced in more state schools.

The scheme had successfully steered children away from drug use. Ms Kelly said: "Drug use is an issue that is not going away. I was looking at the evidence from Abbey School in Kent the other day and found [testing] a hugely effective way of creating peer pressure against taking drugs.

"These are all issues that I think in future we should have an open mind on."

The Abbey School was the first state school in the country to introduce random drug testing and has since seen its GCSE results rise to record levels. Since January last year pupils have been randomly selected by computer each week to be tested for drug use. The mouth swabs detect cannabis, speed, ecstasy, heroin and cocaine.

Peter Walker, who introduced the scheme, has just retired after 20 years as headteacher of Abbey School. He said he was delighted at Ms Kelly's support. "I am overwhelmed. It is great news for the school and great news for the kids," he said.

Mr Walker credits the drug testing for helping the school achieve its best-ever GCSE results last year. "We have had the best 18 months in our history including the best exam results and one of the contributory factors was the random drug testing. About 500 tests have been carried out and only one pupil has tested positive. Mr Walker said children were looking for an excuse to say no to drugs, against peer pressure and the scheme gave them that excuse.

No child is tested against his or her wishes but if a pupil refuses their parents will be invited into school to discuss the issue. Children who test positive will not be expelled but will receive counselling. However, any pupil found to be selling drugs will be expelled and the police called in.

The scheme has attracted considerable interest from policy-makers. Mr Walker was invited to Downing Street to present his findings to Tony Blair's advisers last month. Next month he will lecture President George Bush's advisers at the White House.