Teachers should be testing pupils' minds, not the dope residues in their blood.
According to a survey undertaken by the Times Educational Supplement, 80 per cent of parents believe that children caught selling cannabis in schools should be expelled (1).
Well and good, one might say. School is for learning and development – if kids wish to supplement their pocket money by selling drugs they can do it in their own time. But 90 per cent of those polled also backed random searches for contraband – and educational authorities are making moves to ‘get tough in the war on drugs’. Over 100 schools in England and Wales are now using sniffer dogs to weed out weed (2), and UK prime minister Tony Blair has announced that headteachers are to be given powers to randomly drugs test pupils (3).
In fact, some schools are already doing it. In July 2004 Peter Walker, headmaster of Abbey School in Faversham, Kent, announced that he would be introducing random drugs tests for pupils (4). Lest this seem too draconian, he reassured that the test would only take place after parents had signed a release form, and the pupil selected had given their consent on the day. Should the test prove positive, the police would not be involved nor the child expelled. All of which rather begs the question of why it’s being done at all – unless Mr Walker wishes to compile a demographic study of drug use among Kentish teenagers.
The approach need not be so benign. Under the new regulations, headteachers will have the option to expel pupils or involve the police. But surely drugs tests will expose pupils who use drugs full stop? After all, cannabis stays in the system for around a month, so hard-working Peter and Jane – who beaver away during the week like solid citizens, but enjoy the odd toke at weekends – will be targeted as much as those kids who simply can’t get past morning break without resorting to the chronic.
Well, yes. That’s the beauty of the tests being random. All those afflicted by reefer madness are in the firing line.
Some might argue that recreational drug use, if not sanctioned and taxed, is against the law after all. But what, exactly, does that have to do with schools? Surely what you get up to in your own time is your decision?
The state sector lags far behind Greyfriars and Mallory Towers. Drugs testing was introduced in boarding schools almost a decade ago, to discourage Piers and friends from secreting some finest Afghani in their tuck boxes. As with Mr Walker, a consent form had to be signed by both parents and pupils before they could be tested.
When I was at boarding school it was made pretty clear that not providing the autograph meant being asked to leave, which makes a bit of a mockery of ‘consent’. However, boarding schools are by definition where the pupils live, and there is no avoiding the fact that their life is run by the school. Unfair, but also the way things are. One could choose not to attend.
The point about private institutions is that they have their own codes and rules, and attending one is a form of contract between pupil and institution. Such codes are published, and parents who are in a position to send their darling ones off can select a school they feel reflects the education they want for their kids. Government education policy, on the other hand, is stamped down across the board.
But the purpose of schools appears to be changing. School is no longer where you go to be educated – it is now where one is sent to learn how to become a Good Citizen. From 2002, ‘citizenship’ classes became compulsory in schools (5). Unlike many such ideas the credit for this, or the blame depending on your viewpoint, cannot be laid on the doormat of home secretary David Blunkett. The idea was mooted as far back as 1996 by the Tory government, concerned with ‘enhancing family values and strengthening law-and-order and personal responsibility’ (6).
Fortunately for those who read such sentiments as politicalese for ‘let’s hang someone’ the concept was shelved – but now it’s back with a vengeance. The odd dissenter who posits that maybe schools should try and impart an enquiring mind, a love of knowledge, and the skills to enable one to exercise the first and sate the second is likely to be met with baffled amusement. Far more likely that the curriculum now advises eating salad, taking plenty of exercise, and how to fill in your tax returns.
Sex education in schools is no bad thing, providing it scores high on non-judgemental advice and information and low on recommendation and prescription. But investigating a pupil’s sex life would be an unforgivable intrusion. Likewise it can only help matters if children are provided with factual advice about narcotics, the law, and the possible dangers of indulging. What they then choose to do with that information is another matter.
The possibility of drugs testing has been criticised for creating a culture of mistrust between pedagogue and protégé; this may well be the case, but it isn’t the issue. Testing shouldn’t be shelved because the pupils feel a tad put upon, but because it is simply none of a teacher’s business what someone does out-of-hours and away from the desk. It may be the business of parents – it may even be of interest to the boys in blue – but school is not a monitoring system for social responsibility or a catch-’em-while-they’re-young method of instilling clean living.
There is a potentially nasty side effect of drugs testing. It was recently reported that prison inmates were switching their drug of choice from cannabis to heroin, being just as cheap and having the redeeming feature of leaving the body within 48 hours (7). It would be alarmist to suggest that 4C will collectively think ‘oh dear, that joint will stick around in the bloodstream for weeks, better have the scag instead’, but the ramifications of compulsory testing are not as clear cut as they seem. We do not want tomorrow’s friends reunited fondly reminiscing about shooting up behind the bike shed.
No one is about to suggest that drug use in children is immaterial. But until it affects schoolwork and school life, it should not be a school’s right or responsibility to investigate anyone’s private life. And given the shock-horror statistics of how many children have the odd spliff, it is highly likely that we will once again have a generation who can say ‘yes, I was caned at school. Never did me any harm’.
(1) Tests For Drugs at Random, Times Educational Supplement, 10 September 2004
(2) Rise of Sniffer Dogs in Schools, BBC Online, 18 May 2004
(3) Blair Backs Drugs Tests in Schools, BBC Online, 22 February 2004
(4) Head Teacher Opts for Drugs Testing, Katherine Sellgren, BBC Online, 14 July 2004
(5) Schools ‘Unprepared for Citizenship’, BBC News, 18 July 2002
(6) Citizenship Classes to become Compulsory in English Schools, Liz Smith, World Socialist Web Site, 22 May 1999
(7) Mandatory Prison Drug Testing May have Perverse Effect, taken from The Times Editorial, 12 March 1998
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