Just say no to zero tolerance

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Here we go. It's election time again and zero tolerance on drugs is back on the agenda. For certain politicians and their cheerleaders, zero tolerance has become nothing more than a soundbite. Just two words, but they sound so powerful and commonsense. Who can disagree?

Now Tony Blair wants to super-size zero tolerance with an extra large portion of drug testing. Problem sorted, mission over.We can all go home.

No wonder my students are so cynical.

At many schools, any number of well-meaning visiting speakers will turn up like the A-Team to cleanse your school of The Problem. But teenagers can read their tick-the-box body language and, by the time they are 16, they've heard it all before.

In a way, every school should be zero tolerant of drugs. They should not tolerate the use of illegal drugs. It is against the law, after all. But this is the first problem: few teachers feel comfortable with the law, no matter how many Inset days they've had.

There's a second problem. Are we going to be zero tolerant of all drugs? How many staffrooms could function without the legal cocktail of booze, fags and tranquillisers?

Zero tolerance means we have to police ourselves. A Sunday morning hangover is not illegal, but joking with your students could be seen as endorsing drug use. Everyone has to be on message.

Before your school signs up for drug testing, think about the implications.

Who are you going to test and what are you going to do with the results? What evidence is needed to expel someone? Let's be honest, you're not going to expel half the upper sixth. Think of the message you are sending out.

Students of mine who come from independent schools where they have testing all say, "It's never the rugby team that gets tested". How are they going to view anything else that you say or do?

Is there an alternative to zero tolerance? Over the past two years, the sixth-form college where I work has overhauled its approach to drugs education. We started by asking students their views in focus groups. Many felt that drugs should only be an issue if it affected their academic performance, otherwise what they did in their lives was their own business.

Most wanted unbiased information on the effects of drugs without Big Brother spying on them.

In response, we have started a workshop-based drug education programme, with the students evaluating each step, and we are planning a website.

Drugs policy is hard to crack, but we've been honest about our limitations and responsibilities. Student participation won't solve the problems or the contradictions. It certainly won't give you an easier life. All it offers is a new beginning, and perhaps a chance to prove the cynics wrong.

Mark Piesing is the drugs education co-ordinator at a sixth-form college in Oxfordshire

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