Drug testing

7th July 2006 at 01:00
A sensible precaution or an abuse of human rights? Punishment or protection? Investing in the future or money down the drain? Since the Government gave its support to random drug testing in 2004, opinion has been sharply divided about how and how often schools should be testing pupils, when tests might be useful, what to do with the results - and whether it should be happening at all.

The story so far...

In 2004, Tony Blair gave his backing for random drug testing in schools.

New DfES guidance published that year urged schools to be cautious but supported the principle of testing. In the same year, staff at the Abbey school, an 11-18 comprehensive in Faversham, Kent began drug-testing 20 pupils a week. Candidates' names were selected randomly by computer. Last year, Peter Walker, then head at the school, proclaimed the initiative a huge success; the fact that the Abbey's GCSE results went up from 30 per cent five A*-Cs to over 40 per cent meant plenty of media coverage.

Impressed, the Government recently announced plans to pilot drug testing across the whole of Kent LEA from this September. It has appointed the newly-retired Mr Walker as an ambassador for the scheme. However, there is absolutely no suggestion at this point that the Government intends to make drug testing mandatory. Even in the pilot, schools will be free to opt in or out of the programme.

Testing and the law

Under the Human Rights Act 1998, schools do not have the power to force children to take a drugs test. Even if staff suspect a child is under the influence of drugs, it is only the police who have the legal right to demand a test. Schools get round the law by making tests voluntary, although some experts fear that children may be pressured into "volunteering", especially since parents are sometimes informed when a child refuses. "If not taking the test in some way attracts suspicion, then it is not entirely voluntary," says Andrew Brown, co-ordinator of the Drug Education Forum. "There is still an unspoken pressure to take the test."

Schools may be on shaky ground if they try to exclude a pupil on the basis of a failed drugs test. "A positive drugs test doesn't put a child in breach of a school's discipline policy, since the drug-taking may have occurred outside school," says Julia Thomas of the Children's Legal Centre at the University of Essex. "And it isn't a criminal offence to have drugs in your system; it's possession which is against the law." However, Ms Thomas points out that private schools are not covered by statutory exclusion guidance. "Independent schools have a contract with parents, and if it's made clear that a failed drugs test means exclusion, then that is legally binding."

In the US, where the Government has invested $23 million (pound;12.6 million) in its school drug-testing programme, there have been numerous legal challenges, with different outcomes from state to state. Despite the central funding, schools with testing programmes remain in a minority.

Independent schools In independent schools, drug testing is nothing new. A 1999 survey by HMC, the association for heads of leading private schools, estimated that 75 per cent of boarding schools were already using testing. However, it's extremely rare for independent schools to test pupils unless there are grounds for suspicion.

At Nottingham high school, a 7-18 independent boys' school, it's a condition of entry that a child's parents must sign a form agreeing that the child can be urine tested. When pupils turn 16, they have to sign again for themselves. But the reality is that the school has only tested two children in the past nine years. "We never random test," says deputy head Dr Paul Sibley. "It's only if we think a child is under the influence of drugs while on the premises. We're a day school and what children do in the evenings or weekends is beyond our remit."

Even boarding schools are unlikely to test widely. At Eton, if a student is suspected of taking drugs, but there is no actual proof, he will be requested to take a test. If found positive, he will be offered help and counselling and asked to agree to regular testing. On the other hand, pupils found in possession of drugs are almost always expelled.

Some public schools also test pupils caught with drugs, especially if they expel them, because a positive test can provide insurance against possible lawsuits from parents.

How the tests work

Nearly all drug tests require a sample of hair, urine or oral fluids.

Hair testing is the best way of monitoring long-term drug use, since it can tell you whether or not someone has been using drugs regularly over a period of several months. But because it means sending a hair sample for laboratory analysis, it's expensive and rarely used by schools.

Oral swab tests involve putting a small sponge inside the mouth for two to three minutes, until it fills with saliva. Oral tests detect drugs almost as soon as they have been taken, but the downside is that drugs don't remain in the saliva for long - about 24 hours for most Class A and B drugs, or up to three days for cannabis.

Urine testing has the advantage of being able to pick up cannabis for longer, sometimes up to 30 days after use. While very basic kits still involve dipping a test strip into a beaker of urine, most tests are now "all-in-one systems" where the sample is given into a container, and then a plug is released which puts the urine in contact with the test membrane.

"It's all clean and straightforward," says Tom Fotheringham of drug test company Preventx. Even so, he says most schools choose the oral swab method. "It's about a 65 to 35 per cent split in favour of oral tests. I think they're seen as less invasive."

What about the costs?

Saliva and urine kits cost from pound;5 to pound;15 depending on the type of tests, and the number of drugs they pick up. Basic kits detect cocaine, cannabis and amphetamines, while more expensive ones test for up to 10 drugs, including heroin, crystal meth and ecstasy. Most kits give on-site results within five to 10 minutes, though it's also possible to send the sample for professional testing at a laboratory. This costs around pound;30, but some schools prefer to do this, especially if they want the results to be legally binding. Hair tests are even more expensive, at up to pound;50.

Obviously, the overall cost to schools depends on how many children they choose to test. Having a few kits in the medical cabinet as a deterrent costs very little, whereas an average-sized secondary school which aimed to test all its pupils over the course of the year would be looking at a bill of around Pounds 10,000. Critics point out that even if only one in five pupils is tested, the cost to a large LEA which adopted a drug-test policy in all its secondary schools could be well over pound;40,000 - enough to employ two full-time drugs counsellors, or to set up sports and arts activities for those children most at risk.

What are the chances of a false result?

Most drug-test manufacturers claim their products are at least 98 per cent accurate. That means there's a less than one in 50 chance of a wrong reading, and a second test should remove any doubt. However, that figure doesn't include the possibility that positive tests are the result of legal, rather than illegal, use of drugs. Medicines which contain codeine, for example, can give a positive reading for opiates, while some decongestants may give a positive reading for amphetamines.

Even so, it's probably more likely for a drug user to get a "false negative", than for a non-user to get a "false positive", since most test kits require a particular quantity of a substance to be present, rather than the merest trace, before giving a positive result. This means that passive smoking of cannabis is unlikely to cause a positive test, so can't be used as an excuse.

Room for cheats?

The internet is awash with products that claim to help you pass any kind of drugs test. There are detox drinks and pills, mouthwashes, urine additives, and hair sprays, all of which claim either to remove drugs quickly from your system or to mask their presence, making detection impossible. But most of the products have to be taken several hours before a test, so aren't much use if pupils don't know when they'll be tested. They are also expensive, at around pound;20 a go, so children are unlikely to be able to afford to use them regularly. In any case, opinion is divided about how effective they are.

It's also possible to buy powdered urine, which can be mixed with warm water. With the help of a device which keeps the solution at body temperature it can be given instead of a genuine sample. Again, this is only really of use if someone is expecting to be tested and comes prepared.

More worryingly, some people fear drug testing could lead to higher truancy rates, especially with saliva tests which only pick up drugs for a day or two. A pupil who smoked cannabis on a Friday night, for example, could skip school on Monday, and be in the clear if they were tested on Tuesday. In the US there have been stories of pupils buying their own drug-test kits and only returning to school when they've tested negative.

Why test at all?

The obvious answer is to catch children who are taking drugs. And supporters of testing point to an opinion poll by market research company ICM suggesting 82 per cent of parents and 66 per cent of children are in favour - though there's some evidence that older children are more sceptical. But while the media often presents drug testing as an example of "getting tough", schools that have used testing prefer to see it as part of a programme of support. "It's not about catching people, it's about helping them," says Peter Walker. "We made it clear that children who tested positive would not be punished."

There is also a feeling that testing sends out a strong message on drugs, acts as a deterrent, and reassures parents. "Most importantly of all it helps children to resist peer pressure," says Mr Walker. "The risk of getting tested gives pupils an excuse to say no."

A breakdown of trust?

Not everyone is convinced that the benefits of random testing outweigh the potential drawbacks. While the teaching unions have responded with a mix of suspicion and guarded support, drug charities have been fiercely critical of the idea. "It could lead to a breakdown of trust between pupils and teachers, and that's a crucial part of good drug education," says Jenny McWhirter, head of education and prevention at Drugscope. There are also concerns about whether "suspicionless" testing is ethical, and whether schools have the right to be judgmental about what pupils do during evenings and weekends. "We don't treat adults in this way, unless they are in prison," says Ms McWhirter. "It's an invasion of people's private lives.

What next? Random pregnancy testing?"

Even if the ethos is one of support rather than punishment, some experts fear that schools could overreact. After all, a positive saliva or urine test gives no indication of whether a pupil is a heavy, occasional or first-time user, which makes providing the right kind of support more difficult. Finally, it's not even clear if random voluntary testing is an effective way of catching drug-users. At the Abbey school, one in seven pupils refused to take the tests, and of the 600 students tested last year only one was positive. "Either the school has a remarkably low number of drug users, statistically, or we have to conclude that voluntary random testing isn't a good way of identifying them," suggests Andrew Brown of the Drug Education Forum.

Does testing act as a deterrent?

It's hard to say. Professor Neil McKeganey, of the University of Glasgow, believes there is no proof that testing reduces drug use. "It would be difficult to justify rolling out a programme of random testing based on the current evidence," he says. In the most comprehensive study to date, at the University of Michigan, a survey of 76,000 middle and high school students concluded that whether or not schools carried out testing had a negligible impact on the number of children taking drugs.

Peter Walker, on the other hand, believes that reducing the numbers of pupils taking drugs is only part of the story. He is convinced that testing has had a positive effect at the Abbey school, regardless of how the statistics add up. "It sent out a message that we were protecting the interests of the majority of children, the ones who don't take drugs. It created a feel-good factor around the place."

But Professor McKeganey would like to see scientific proof, rather than subjective opinion. He believes that expanding drug testing across Kent is unlikely to advance the debate far without proper gathering of an extensive range of pre and post-testing data. "What we need is not more research, but better research," he says.

Making things worse?

It is possible that random drug testing could actually have an adverse effect. One theory is that it could make children more likely to try heroin or cocaine instead of cannabis, because these drugs are cleared from the system much more quickly and so are less likely to show up in tests.

Although few children have access to hard drugs such as these, there is evidence that this is what has happened in the prison system, where drug testing is now compulsory. Other youngsters may increase their alcohol consumption instead - a move which some experts claim is just as dangerous.

There is even evidence that catching cannabis users could make them more, rather than less, likely to continue using drugs. "Labelling a young person as a drug taker may well cause them to live down to that expectation," says Andrew Brown of the Drug Education Forum. And finally, research in the US suggests that when schools stop their programme of random drug testing, the number of pupils taking drugs actually rises above pre-testing and testing levels. It's not clear why this should be, but it is possible that stopping a programme sends out the message that drugs don't matter, or that the issue is no longer important. So schools embarking on drug testing need to be committed to a long-term programme and be prepared to fund it.

Did you know?

* Schools do not have the power to force children to take a drugs test, although the police do

* Cannabis can be detected in saliva for about three days but in urine for up to 30 days

* Powdered urine is available for sale on the internet. Mixed with warm water, it is intended to be used to defeat drug tests

* Seventy five per cent of private boarding schools already use drug testing

* An average-sized secondary school which aimed to test all of its pupils over the course of the year would be looking at a bill of around pound;10,000

* In the US, there have been stories of pupils buying their own drug test kits - and only returning to school when they are negative


* www.teachernet.gov.ukdrugs.

* DrugScope: www.drugscope.org.uk.

* Transform Drug Policy Foundation: www.tdpf.org.uk.

* Preventx: www.preventx.co.uk.

* A summary of Professor McKeganey's report can be found at www.jrf.org.ukknowledgefindingssocial policy0095.asp. Published by Joseph Rowntree Foundation, pound;11.95 plus pound;2 pp.

* Peter Walker is happy to give advice to schools wanting to set up a drug-testing programme and can be contacted at wyorks@msn.com.

The Complete Classroom: issues and solutions for teachers by Steven Hastings (Routledge, pound;15.99) offers a comprehensive overview of the challenges facing modern schools. Based on The Issue series, this easy-to-digest guide is available from TES Books on 0870 444 8633; www.tes.co.ukbookshop.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today