Public schools may start drug tests for pupils

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Education Editor

Police should not automatically be called when pupils are found smoking cannabis, public school heads said yesterday.

They also called on schools to consider drug tests for pupils suspected of taking drugs in a report drawn up for the Head Masters' Conference of top public school heads in Dublin.

Drugs are a growing problem in both state and independent schools. This year pupils have been expelled from schools such as Eton, Millfield, Wellington and Westminster for drugs offences.

Keith Dawson, head of Haberdashers' Aske's, Hertfordshire, who led the working party which produced the report, said an isolated incident with cannabis need not necessarily involve the police. "I am not saying don't bother about cannabis, but it is a question of a pragmatic response."

Police were often busy with serious drug incidents and might take a less severe view of cannabis smoking than schools.

The report says police should be called to deal with pushers and dealers and if pupils are found taking class-A drugs such as heroin and ecstasy.

Schools are free to decide their own drugs policy and the report treads a difficult path between heads' conflicting views on drug testing.

It poses random testing on moral and legal grounds and says: "Drug testing is not without its own problems both of principle and practice. Some day schools believe that to have drug testing in their schools would involve an unacceptable invasion of the private social activities of their pupils, which is essentially a matter for their parents."

However, it says pupils' agreement to testing could be used as an alternative to expulsion.

Richard Barker, head of Sevenoaks School, Kent, has already begun drug testing. He said a pupil was expelled in June for selling cannabis but nine others were allowed to remain on condition that they submitted to regular testing.

He said: "Drugs is a national problem. It is to the credit of independent schools that they are facing it."

Some schools expel all pupils involved in drug cases. But the report warns that this prevents heads making allowances for different degrees of guilt. "It may also encourage defeat and a closing of ranks." Expulsion, it says, should be used only as a last resort.

The working party argues that schools which expel pupils or ask for their removal have a continuing responsibility for them and the heads should find them a new school.

It says: "We are emphatically not proposing a free market in pupils who have been expelled for misdemeanours relating to drugs. However, in cases where a head feels able to recommend a pupil in good faith, we believe that colleagues should be prepared to accept that judgement."

Mr Dawson urged schools to find out what pupils thought about drugs. He said that this hitherto had been forbidden territory with schools and parents fearing what they might uncover and pupils afraid of punishment.