New guidelines for schools on drugs education, published this week, place schools at the "cornerstone" of the Government's 10-year anti-drugs strategy Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain.
David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, says children want more drug education and schools must give it to them, but they also have a responsibility to allay parents' fears about what that means.
The 1996 British Crime Survey found that just under half of 16 to 24-year-olds admitted to having taken an illegal drug at one time. A fifth said they took an illegal drugs at least once a month. There is evidence of growing exposure among 11 to 15-year-olds, although less than one in 20 in this age group report ever having taken illegal drugs. Thirteen appears to be the threshold of experimentation.
However, there are more young people who have never taken illegal drugs than those who have. The guidance points put that children are gaining knowledge of drugs from an ever-younger age and criticise the 40 per cent of primaries without polices for "failing to get to grips" with how "drug abuse is spreading in our society". (Of secondary schools, 86 per cent already have policies. ) Mr Blunkett says: "It is vital that children receive information on drugs appropriate to their age and experience throughout their school career and beyond." This means starting in primary school with the most basic lessons on safety and respect for themselves and others, and progressing to an appreciation of drugs as medicines and the harmful effects of tobacco and alcohol. It is only after this grounding that children should be taught about the likelihood of encountering illegal drugs. Simply frightening children about drugs will not work, nor will simply providing very basic information.
The guidance states: "Advising 13-year-olds that action they take now will cause damage at 40 is unlikely to be influential." Instead, it argues, the most successful programmes emphasise social skills, such as peer resistance, as well as improvement in self-esteem and awareness. When pupils are caught taking drugs, the document emphasises that it is up to headteachers and governors to decide what to do, but accuses some schools of "moving too quickly to exclude pupils more or less automatically, and failing to address the needs of those involved." Others may be "overly simplistic" and failing to take "the complexities of a situation" into account.
Permanent exclusion, it adds, may make young people more vulnerable to exposure to drugs and suggests temporary exclusion may be a more appropriate punishment.
However, the Office for Standards in Education reports that in practice, schools generally use expulsion only for pupils repeatedly caught with drugs and for dealing.
Police must be informed whenever pupils are caught with illegal drugs but the extent of police involvement should be worked out between local officers and schools. Schools do not normally use drug-testing. If they do,they should have the consent of pupils, and of parents where pupils are under the age of 16.
'Protecting Young People, Good Practice in Drug Education in Schools and the Youth Service' is available free from: DFEE Publications, PO Box 5050,Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 6ZQ. Pleasequote ref: PYBDRUGS
PROTECTING YOUNG PEOPLE: GOOD PRACTICE IN DRUG EDUCATION. What every pupil should know - * Five to seven-year-olds should understand the role of drugs as medicines and that all drugs are harmful if not used properly.
* Seven to 11-year-olds should know about different types of medicines, legal and illegal drugs and their effects and associated risks.
* Eleven to 14-year-olds should know about different categories of drugs including stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens and the law relating to drugs.
* Fourteen to 16-year-olds should know about drugs, including their legal status, effects and appearance; the dangers associated with particular drugs and of mixing them and specific environments and moods.