We are stuck in a blind alley on drugs

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Users need help but ministers won't fund the programmes that can help them, says Ewan Aitken

The recent proposal that Scottish schools should join their English counterparts and become involved in random drug testing has received almost universal rejection. I hope that these protesting voices will be heard.

Not only would such a regime create an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion in schools, but it is also utterly impractical. How can we argue that good educational experiences are based on the relationships that teachers create with pupils, while asking those same staff to implement a process that suggests guilt without evidence?

It is not enough, in this case, to argue that children who don't take drugs have nothing to fear. We would be creating a process of inquisition that taints them with the brush of suspicion, breaking down hard-won relationships built on trust.

While the education experience is a primary driver for how society evolves, not all of society's problems can be solved by schools. Any policy that is introduced in schools to face up to or challenge something perceived by society as a problem, be it health or skills or nurture of talent or assimilation of values, must be primarily an educational policy.

In other words, it must create an educational experience. Lining up the weans and testing them for drugs will be an experience all right, but not one that could be in the least bit described as educationally positive.

I am not naive about the consequences of drugs. I have stood at many gravesides struggling to make sense of yet another young life lost to drugs. I remember one, a 16-year-old who choked on her own vomit having taken pills given to her by her mother. That same mother tried to jump in the grave after her dead daughter. By then such concern was too late. But I struggle to see how testing at school would have prevented any of those funerals. For most of those young people, the school environment was difficult enough to cope with without introducing more suspicion into their relationships with adults.

But more fundamentally, this policy is an admission of failure - failure to face up to what it actually takes to wean people off drugs, including failing on the way. Instead it sees drug-free solutions as being found in instant, court-based punitive responses, a methodology that clearly has not worked.

The journey from drug abuse to drug free is long, difficult and full of failures. The best drug education programme that I have seen has been peer-based, relating real experiences as the basis from which young people can make real choices. Organisations like Fast Forward in Edinburgh or speakers like Leah Betts's stepfather really do make a difference because they speak from their heart and soul.

They change lives, but not always immediately nor without several attempts.

Significant resources are also needed, like people to walk with those afflicted by drugs and keep picking them up every time they fall until they can journey on their own.

The random test proposal is not about education or about doing what it takes to get young drug users free of their addiction. It's about using the fact that schools have lots of young people in one place at one time for policing purposes. It will undermine every effort schools are making to enable those young people who are at risk of becoming drug users to make different choices, having experienced in school a place of trust and respect in exploring the issue for themselves.

Random drug testing in schools may not happen, but support for those afflicted is still needed. Sadly, the Scottish Executive's removal of funding from the highly innovative and successful Airborne Initiative shows a lack of understanding of how hard change is for young people whose whole life experience has been about chaos, crime, violence, drugs, fear.

The programme focused extensively on Outward Bound activity involving older teenagers who were at the heavy end of antisocial behaviour. It was no easy option. It demanded that the young people who took part faced up to their inadequacies and found new depths of character, making the best of their great strength, the survival instinct. Half of them had reached a stage where they were not reoffending.

On the way they sometimes fell by the wayside, only for the programme to pick them up and start again. It was a programme in for the long haul. But the justice department wanted quicker results with fewer early failures. It ain't going to happen.

Consequently, there is one less programme available that could really cope with those identified as having a drug problem, even if that is through a random drug test at school.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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