POLICE CHIEFS are throwing their weight behind demands for primary schools to stiffen pupils' resistance to drugs from "the earliest possible age".
While a key Government adviser warns that schools alone cannot stop the spread of illegal substances, a strategy statement to be distributed to all eight Scottish forces by the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland urges teachers to give "prime consideration" to the growing drugs menace despite the many competing demands facing schools.
Tom Wood, deputy chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police and a member of the association's crime committee, said it was too late to wait for children to reach secondary school "where they will almost certainly be exposed to a drugs culture by meeting other young people who are either speaking about drugs or using them".
Judith Gillespie, development manager with the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said parents needed no persuading that primary was the place to start. But primary teachers were "scared silly", conscious that the pupils often knew more than they did.
Mr Wood said: "Primary school teachers do not realise how important they are. They see illegal drugs as a war in which it is the police who are up against the baddies and that it is not their business. But it is."
An HMI report earlier this year revealed that of 222 primary schools inspected between 1996 and 1998 nearly 40 per cent did not have a comprehensive drugs education programme. "It is a matter of concern that so many primary schools are not ensuring every pupil receives effective drugs education," inspectors stated.
Fred Forrester, depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said that until recently "drugs education has been seen as a secondary school issue, with the result that many primary teachers have not had the relevant training".
But Mr Forrester warned about confused messages over the acceptability of taking soft drugs. "Teachers respond to certainty and they don't like dubiety or ambiguity," he said.
Alistair Ramsay, executive director of the all-party Scotland Against Drugs (SAD) agency, said: "Educationists have been moderately slow at coming out of denial about drug-related issues." But Mr Ramsay admitted: "Schools themselves will not stop the use of illegal drugs."
The SAD initiative has already taken steps to boost the confidence and competence of primary teachers in drugs education. A three-year rolling programme, first piloted in 1997, has trained teachers in seven education authorities and has plans to involve at least another 10.
Edinburgh University's latest study on Health Behaviours of Scottish School Children reports that in a survey of 5,631 young people undertaken in 1998, 39 per cent of 13-year-olds and 48 per cent of 15-year-olds said they had used cannabis recently.
There was evidence, too, of abuse of hard drugs.
Ryan's tale, page 7