More than half of the country's top independent boarding schools randomly test their pupils for drugs, it has been claimed.
Random tests are increasingly being seen by boarding schools as a better option to "zero" tolerance and automatic expulsion, according to Reverend Dr John Barrett, the headmaster of the Leys school in Cambridge, who led an inquiry by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference into drug use by pupils.
The on-the-spot tests are carried out on pupils suspected of drug abuse or who have already been found in possession of drugs. They can then be allowed back into school after a period of suspension provided they agree to random testing.
A spokesman for the Independent Schools Council, which represents most of the country's private schools, said: "It is becoming widespread.
"There is a division of opinion still within the independent sector. There are a substantial number of schools who still believe in the 'zero option' where drug users are automatically expelled.
"However, an increasing number of schools are taking the view this is not necessarily an offence requiring immediate exclusion."
Dr Barrett said: "We don't advocate blanket testing. We advocate that schools should consider testing when there are reasonable grounds for suspicion or when a first offence – not in the case of a drug pusher – has been committed. It might just have been a puff behind the bike sheds, for instance.
"Our advice is that you should seek parental consent for random testing but the key bit is that it has to be done with the consent of the pupil. If you didn't have their consent, that would almost be an assault."
The Leys, a 520-pupil co-educational boarding school with fees of up to £14,500 a year, is one of the schools to have introduced random testing. Others that use tests include Lancing College and Edinburgh's Stewart's Melville College.
"Somebody actually thanked me for the policy," said Dr Barrett. "In that case, we never had to do the test because the pupil admitted 'if you test me, it will be positive'.
"He was allowed back provided he agreed to [random and without notice] tests. He came to us and said ,after a year, 'thank you for saving me'."
Dr Roger Harrington, immediate past president of the Medical Officers of Schools Association and doctor to Stowe school in Buckinghamshire, said: "Many schools now do what we call a 'for cause' test if there is reason to suspect a pupil of using drugs. We wouldn't do random tests in the sense of going into a maths class and testing everyone because, for one, it wouldn't be cost effective and it would be upsetting.
"The randomness is in the timing. You will tell an individual pupil who may have been found in possession of drugs that they can stay in school provided they agree to drugs tests. Selling drugs, though, would still be an absolute 'no,no'.
"Some people say this policy is condoning it but you have to be part of the real world. Most youngsters who experiment experiment once and that is it."
The random testing approach was one of the methods of tackling drugs outlined in a working party report published by the HMC, which represents 250 of the top boys' boarding schools, two years ago. The report estimated around five boarding schools had already introduced the tests.
"I haven't any statistics but my suspicion is that the majority of boarding schools – at least fifty per cent – would now be using tests," said Dr Barrett.
He added that members of the HMC were considering a follow-up to find out the extent of the random testing and its effectiveness.
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