23 February 2004

Drug Testing in Schools

An example of a drug strategy now just gesture-politics.

The widely-reported announcement that the Government was to endorse random drug-testing in schools came as a surprise to many.
The mystery of the DfES Guidance Document:
Certainly it seems to have come as a surprise to Drugscope, to the teaching unions and associations and to other Drug charities. It will also come as a surprise to the DfES who published their "Drugs - Guidance for Schools" this month.

This Guidance Document, for headteachers, Governors and LEAs covers all aspects of drugs education and prevention in school settings. The Guidance Document was put together by Drugscope, Alcohol Concern and the DfES, and is endorsed by Stephen Twigg, the Undersecretary of State.

The Guidance document makes little reference to sniffer dogs or drug testing. The report "Headteachers are within their rights to invite the police or private companies to bring sniffer dogs onto school premises or employ drug testing."

However, the report does not advocate such an approach, and does not go in to detail about how to implement such a strategy.

What the report does stress is the need to ensure that any enforcement measures such as sniffer dogs or drug testing are "consistent with the pastoral responsibility of the school to create a supportive environment," and that "A headteacher requesting the use of sniffer dogs [and/or drug testing] solely as a deterrent,where there are no reasonable grounds for suspicion and where prior consent has not been sought, will need to consider possible challenges by parents and pupils under the Human Rights Act."

The announcement made by Blair go far beyond the guidance reccomended by the Guidance document and put a greater weight on sniffer dogs and drug testing than have ever been discussed before.

Blair and the Cult of the Sparkly New Idea

So why should Tony Blair use an interview with the News of The World as an opportunity to announce that the Government is to put its weight behind random drug testing in school settings.

The actual comments made by the PM are not in themselves earthshattering. All he has actually said is 'If heads believe they have a problem in their school then they should be able to do random drug testing,' he told the News of the World. 'Guidance will be given to headteachers next month which is going to give them specifically the power to do random drug testing within their schools.'

But since his announcements, a range of ministers have spoken on the subject and elucidated on the subject and, it seems, added a range of meanings to the PMs comments.

So Ivan Lewis (Education Minister) spoke on Channel 4 news as a process of identifying people early so they could be refered for treatment and counselling. He went further on the Today programme on Monday, arguing that schools could use it as a part of the school policy and pupils or parents who refused to accede could be rejected from the school. He stated that the Government "expected schools to take all appropriate measures [to prevent drug abuse]" suggesting that the Government expected schools to introduce drug testing. But Lewis was clearly under-prepared and under briefed for this interview, saying that he thought most headteachers wanted this power, but unable to say what consultation had taken place, and what the outcome was. John Prescott spoke about testing being a deterrent. And Downing Street added commentary, saying that the aim would not be to see pupils expelled from school.

Who leads on drugs?
But the implication was the same: Blair had produced a "policy" from nowhere, in contradiction to what the DFES was saying and without reference to the drugs or education field. ANd on the back of Blair's statements, a range of other Government heads were wheeled out to speak on the subject. But not, crucially, Caroline Flint or Blunkett. So is this a strategy that has been approved by them or is it Blair's alone.

There are potentially a number of driving forces behind Blair's statement. One has to note that Blair's direction here mirrors (once again) that of George Bush. Just as Blair seems willing to follow Bush into a war on Iraw without a robust evidence base, so it seems that he is prepared to pursue Bush's campaign of schools drug testing, even though the worth of such an approach is not proven.

Similarly, Blair was visited by Sweden's PM may have influenced Blair's view of drug policy. The Swedish drugs policy is credited in some quarters as having reduced the extent of problematic drug use in Sweden and is held up by critics of liberal drug policy as a viable alternative.

But alongside the obvious influence of Bush and the possible influence of other European countries, we must look at influences much closer to home. Either actively or tacitly, we are in to the initial stages of an election campaign. And as predicted elsewhere on this website, drugs are going to form a core aspect of this campaign.

Blunkett and Blair seem to be lurching to outdo Michael Howard and Letwin. But without any loud, effective voices to challenge this drift, there is little scope for stopping it. With most major drugs charities now wholly or partly tied to Government funding, there are fewer and fewer with the independence and scope to get their voices heard.

And let us also not lose sight of how some of the research in to school drug testing was funded. The most recent study in Scotland was funded by Euromed - one of the leading manufactures of drug testing products. Not necesarily the most objective of sources. Yet this report is now being cited as grounds for the expansion of school drug testing.

A resounding 'NO' to random drug-testing in schools:
The proposals to endorse or encourage drug testing in schools is ill-thought, unworkable and counter productive.

School Drug Testing:
  • Cannot take place without the consent of the young person in question in school settings: to do so otherwise is likely to be assault
  • Is a poor indicator of substance use; most drugs have a very short window of detection
  • Breaks down trusting therapeutic relationships between schools and pupils
  • Cannot differentiate between use that has taken place in leisure time and that which has taken place in school time
  • Is likely to result in more school exclusion and truancy to the most at-risk
  • Will not deter those who use drugs
  • Is unworkable in practice and
  • Is contrary to all good policy and practice on the subject

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