The drugs policy don’t work

The expulsion of pupils from a Hertfordshire school for taking drugs during the holidays illustrates the mixed messages government gives to schools and young people.

Tristan Edmondson

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Three pupils were expelled last week from St George’s School Harpenden, a prestigious state boarding school in Hertfordshire, for smoking cannabis during the summer holidays. But should schools be disciplining children for what goes on beyond the school gate?

Harpenden is an affluent commuter town. Its leafy roads and traditional high street do not point to an endemic drugs problem bought on by social exclusion, especially not involving St George’s pupils where ‘there is a sense of real purpose and harmony based on Christian principles and our traditions,’ according to the headmaster, Norman Hoare.

Rumours of drug abuse surfaced this autumn and an investigation was launched by the school. The subsequent expulsions were based on interviews held by St George’s. Whilst cannabis use is illegal, the police told me that they would not be taking any action after concluding that there was too little evidence to pursue the matter.

Norman Hoare told BBC News: ‘The school has a duty to uphold the law and protect all students but none of our investigations showed that the drugs had been on our premises. The activities took place after school or at weekends and some of it started in July. That’s one of the reasons we acted very quickly. (1)’

Hoare’s ideas on the boundaries of school authority are not shared by everyone. One angry parent contacted spiked, even though his children were not involved: ‘At what point does the school’s jurisdiction end? I am completely opposed to the control of my children outside of school hours.’ When I asked Norman Hoare why he had expelled students on the basis of drug use outside of school term, he replied that ‘the pupils who join the school are aware of our drugs policy’. However, his actions seem to go beyond the policy stated on the school’s website: ‘A period of fixed term exclusion [ie, suspension] from school would normally be the penalty for involvement in purchase, possession, or consumption of illegal drugs or substance of abuse while under school jurisdiction.'(2)

Events at St George’s contrast with a case heard by the High Court in September. A school in Birmingham had its decision to expel two pupils for cannabis use overturned because their expulsion contravened government guidelines on exclusion for minor drug offences. These pupils were caught smoking on school grounds and some kind of punishment by the school was to be expected (3). But the St George’s pupils were not caught by the police or anyone from the school; they were allegedly using cannabis outside of school term and were not dealing drugs.

St George’s sees the alleged minor drug use of a few of its pupils outside school hours as its responsibility – parents are not to be trusted. In doing so, the headmaster was only following the lead of the New Labour government; it does not trust private individuals. The Anti-Social Behaviour Act of 2003 (4) gives head teachers the authority to fine parents and issue parenting orders forcing them to attend counselling. Where once schools stood for moral guidance, they are now expected to play a much more interventionist and authoritarian role. As David Perks has noted elsewhere on spiked: ‘the government sees schools as a blunt weapon in a war against what it sees as feckless parents and feral children. Education policy has become part of a wider attempt to control people’s behaviour.’ (5)

So how should we deal with children who experiment with drugs and why do they do it? I asked Patrick Turner, writer, lecturer and former drugs worker: ‘The same as we have traditionally done with alcohol. A degree of indulgence towards the desire to experiment and enjoy adult pleasures seasoned with a sensitivity to the circumstances and motives of the individuals concerned. Put simply, the risk associated with a stable, self-aware young person who has lots of support messing around with dope is not the same as that posed to the young person, say, in local authority care with a history of poor mental health.’

In fact, government guidelines on expulsion seem to fit well with Turner’s statement:

‘Exclusion should only be considered for serious breaches of the school’s behaviour policy, and should not be imposed without a thorough investigation unless there is an immediate threat to the safety of others in the school or the pupil concerned. It should not be used if alternative solutions have the potential to achieve a change in the pupil’s behaviour and are not detrimental to the whole school community.’ (6)

So, why has this school gone further? Norman Hoare had not heard about the Birmingham case in which the High Court ruled these guidelines took precedence over school decisions. I suspect when the St George’s board of governers examines the expulsion they may well overturn it in light of the Birmingham case.

This episode is indicative of the mixed messages from government about drugs, and the contradictory positions they adopt. The government’s downgrading of cannabis to a class ‘C’ drug has added to the mess since the law itself is a combination of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ signals. So while the maximum sentence for possession will fall from five years to two, penalties for adults supplying cannabis will remain at a maximum of 14 years compared to the five years for other class ‘C’ drugs (7).

There is no right for children to experiment with cannabis, but it would be better to have childhood experimentation dealt with in a constructive manner. That means schools should not overstep the boundaries of their authority, and government should not politicise and proceduralise matters that are best dealt with informally.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Drink and drugs

(1) Pupils disciplined for ‘drug use’ , BBC News, 11 October 2006

(2) Drugs management policy, St George’s School, Harpenden [pdf]

(3) Expulsions for cannabis use unlawful, court rules, Guardian, 1 September 2006

(4) Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003

(5) We don’t need no thought control, by David Perks

(6) Drugs: Guidance for Schools DfES 2004

(7) See A blurred vision, by Josie Appleton

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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