Testing times

Until February last year the Department for Education and Skills
strongly advised schools in the UK against random drug testing.
Prime Minister Tony Blair then performed a U-turn on the issue,
declaring his support for random testing of school pupils in an
interview with the News of the World and promising fresh guidance
for schools (see box).


Last month the Abbey in Faversham, Kent, became the first state
school in the country to carry out random tests, with the News of
the World footing the estimated £15,000 bill for a six-month
trial. Warrington-based Altrix Healthcare has supplied the testing
kits and has trained five non-teaching support workers to
administer the swab tests.


But random drug testing has been sharply criticised by
representatives of school students, human rights organisations and
drugs charities who insist that the small amount of research done
on similar testing procedures in the US shows that they have not
been effective in curbing drug abuse.


Headmaster Peter Walker says so far no pupils have tested positive
and that 85 per cent of the parents of the 960 pupils have declared
their support, with 40 per cent of the teaching staff also offering
to be tested. Consent for the tests must be obtained from both
parents and pupils and anyone testing positive would not be handed
over to the police but would be offered counselling.


“Some parents have refused to let their children be tested because
they think it’s against their rights. The biggest chunk of those
not being tested are children who are in foster care because social
services are not agreeing to it at this stage,” he says.


Rajeeb Dey, national co-ordinator of the newly-formed English
Secondary Students Association (ESSA), warns that random testing
could sow distrust between teachers and pupils “which could
actually drive drug use underground by encouraging


Instead of cutting money for drug education the government should
be investing in rehabilitation for young people who take drugs. He
says: “If you are not taking drugs you should not have to prove
yourself. A school environment where there are sniffer dogs and
testing is not a good one for learning.”


Neil McKeganey, professor of drug misuse research at Glasgow
University, has looked into the US evidence and the ethics and
practicalities of school testing in a report, Random Drug Testing
of School Pupils: A Shot in the Arm or a Shot in the Foot, to be
published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (when?).


He acknowledges that random testing in schools, which is now being
backed by Tory leader Michael Howard, is popular among parents. But
he says that in the US, where the Bush administration has funded
tests to the tune of $25m, research findings do not show it to be


“The report concludes that it is not something we should be
embarking on an ad hoc basis within the UK unless and until clear
evaluations have been carried out,” he adds.


Peter Walker is keen to evaluate the effects of the testing at the
Abbey School and promises: “If we don’t see any discernible
benefits at the end of six months then we won’t be doing it


Andrew Brown is co-ordinator of the Drug Education Forum, which
contributed to the drugs guidance for schools and strongly warned
the government against the introduction of random testing and
sniffer dogs. He points out that in spite of Mr Blair’s promise of
clear guidelines there is no specific reference to “random” testing
in the DfES guidance.


For Terri Dowty, policy director at Action on Rights for Children
(Arch), random testing in schools represents a serious human rights
breach. She says: “Children do have a right to privacy and I don’t
think it’s a proportionate response to subject children to these
tests. We would be better concentrating on drugs education than
intruding on people in this way.


“Paradoxically it may give children the message that it is normal
to take drugs. Taking such an authoritarian stance invites
rebellion and invites people to find ways round it.”


She warns that the tests could prove an incentive for young people
to try more harmful drugs such as cocaine as traces of it can be
purged from the human body in 24 hours, while cannabis takes
between seven and 10 days.


Drugscope says that there have been instances when decongestants
and asthma inhalers have resulted in a positive test. The charity
also questions how drug education programmes, given official
blessing by Ofsted, can be squared with the regime of random


At the Abbey School, Peter Walker has been inundated with requests
from media outlets from across the globe, with other schools in the
UK keen to learn from the Kent comprehensive’s experience. “It
reinforces my opinion that the world has a problem,” he


That may be so, but has he found the solution? The US evidence and
the scepticism of experts in the field suggest that drug education
may prove a more lasting antidote to the spread of drug abuse than
random testing.

Who let the dogs out?

Department for Education and Skills guidance states

  • Head teachers are within their rights to bring the police or
    private companies with sniffer dogs onto school premises or employ
    drug testing. South Yorkshire police started using sniffer dogs on
    school buses last year.

  • The intention to use this approach should be clearly stated in the
    school’s drug policy, which should be developed in consultation
    with pupils, parents, staff, governors and the whole school

  • The head teacher will usually ask parents or carers for their
    written consent for the use of sniffer dogs. But the guidance
    emphasises that this is “good practice rather than a legal
    requirement”. Yet it also warns heads that they may face possible
    challenges from parents and pupils under the Human Rights Act

  • Schools using sniffer dog searches without the authority of a
    police warrant should “exercise extreme caution before doing so”.
    They must ensure their actions are not inconsistent with the
    pastoral responsibility of the school or insensitive to Muslim,
    Buddhist or other cultures that consider dogs unclean.

  • Head teachers must ensure the right to privacy of pupils identified
    by a sniffer dog either because they are taking prescription
    medicines or have been exposed to an environment where others have
    used drugs.

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