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A hard line or a second chance?

Gillian Shephard's recent advice on combating drugs may have been directed at the maintained sector but the drug menace is just as worrying to those working in independent schools. Some would say that the easier the access to money, the greater the chance of the problem occurring. The party culture of teenagers with ready funds is fertile ground for those with substances to sell.

While it is now acknowledged that there is not a secondary school in the land which can confidently say its pupils are totally innocent of experience of drugs, it is independent schools which hit the headlines. Nearly all of our famous boarding schools have received unwelcome media attention of this kind. It is all very well the Secretary of State saying that "a well-planned drugs policy should be seen as a positive marketing point for the school", but most parents would like to think that they are sending their child to a school which does not have a problem.

This is the dilemma for schools struggling to deal with a problem which the rest of society has so far failed to control. Most are only too ready to "take a firm stand against drugs". It is the heads of boarding schools who shoulder the most onerous responsibility. For most day school pupils, drug abuse occurs off the premises and out of school hours. No such distinctions are possible for boarders, though most drug-takers have admitted that their habit started during school holidays.

Few would quarrel with the Department for Education advice to "develop coherent drug education policies and programmes", or that they should "obtain the support and encouragement of parents". It is in dealing with drug-related incidents that the real problems arise and this is where, rightly or wrongly, practice in schools in the Headmasters' Conference differs from the new advice.

Where there is clear evidence that pupils have taken drugs at school - and particularly where they have been supplying drugs to other pupils - they are almost certain to be expelled. The few schools considering other strategies insist that they are not softening their attitude. So there is concern over the message from the DFE that even drug peddling is not reason enough for automatic exclusion.

The dilemma, though, is well understood. If it is true that 40 per cent of l5-year-olds have had drug experience, then the number of school exclusions will soon become even more unacceptable. There are heads who believe that the school's role is by no means complete when the appropriate programme of education on drugs has been delivered. They accept that at least some effort should be made to rehabilitate those who have transgressed. In the past, this has usually been done by persuading another school to provide a second chance in return for reciprocal service.

An interesting feature of the new strategy has been the introduction of drug testing. Some heads have been willing to retain pupils suspected of drug-taking providing they, with the support of their parents, agree to be tested at suitable intervals. It is understood that if results are positive, they will leave the school. This measure permits some flexibility. While the Secretary of State refers to the duty of teachers to ensure the health and safety of young people and to a right of search and confiscation, no mention is made of testing, and teachers are unsurprisingly warned that they cannot make intimate physical searches.

A key factor in a successful drugs policy is a supportive relationship between school and parents. Most parents choosing independent schools say that good discipline is one of the most important factors. They expect firm action to be taken against other pupils who attempt to introduce their children to drugs. However, if it is their children who have transgressed, they expect sympathy and at least a second chance. Moreover, if the decision goes against them they expect the governors to overturn the head's decision.

Even more difficult is the question of responsibility for activities which take place out of school. In many cases, the police are pleased to leave action to the school, but not all parents feel the same way. The DFE draft circular confines itself to the most general advice, and heads will rely on mutual support in working out their solutions. Most will be at least comforted to know that they have a Secretary of State who shares their concerns.

Vivian Anthony was the headteacher of Colfe's School, London, from 1976 to 1990 and is the secretary of the Headmasters' Conference.

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