Pubdate: Tue, 11 Jan 2005
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2005 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Author: Matthew Taylor, education correspondent, The Guardian
Cited: DrugScope
Cited: Liberty
Bookmark: (Drug Testing)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - United Kingdom)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Ecstasy)
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Youth)

Inside the Orange Room


Guardian Invited to Witness School's Controversial Scheme

As they wait patiently for the teacher to call out their names at morning 
registration, the pupils at Abbey High School know that today it could be 
their turn. For the past week, alongside the usual messages concerning the 
day-to-day business of running a busy secondary school, the roll-call has 
contained several small envelopes addressed to individual children. Inside 
a note tells them to make their way to the school's Orange Room on the 
first floor.

Here among pastel shades and tasteful prints, the children, some as young 
as 11, are tested for a range of drugs including cannabis, heroin, cocaine 
and ecstasy.

The school in Faversham, Kent, sparked controversy by introducing random 
voluntary testing to tackle the issue of drug use among pupils. Its 
decision has seen youngsters and staff thrust into the limelight, with 
reporters and television crews from across Europe bombarding the school 
with phone calls and interview requests.

Yesterday the Guardian was the first newspaper to be invited to talk to 
children and teachers about the scheme and whether it will succeed in 
turning youngsters away from drugs.

"It's taken a long time but we are finally getting started," said the 
headteacher Peter Walker. "This is something we have worked on since 
February and it is part of a determined effort to look after the wider 
interests of our children."

As breaktime comes to a chaotic and noisy end, the Orange Room offers a 
sanctuary of calm. Inside, Daniel Kelly has just undergone a mock test to 
show how the procedure works, with its mouth swabs and specimen tubes.

"I think it is a good idea because it will help find the people who are 
taking the drugs and help them stop," said the 12-year-old.

"And it may stop people from starting drugs in the first place because 
they'll be worried about being caught."

Civil liberties groups and drugs charities are not so sure. In the past 
week they have questioned the effectiveness of the scheme, claiming it 
could stigmatise children and increase truancy levels among those already 
at risk.

Martin Barnes, the chief executive of DrugScope, who sits on the 
government's advisory council on the misuse of drugs, said: "We do not 
accept that testing pupils as young as 11 is a proportionate response to 
general concerns about drug use."

Barry Hugill, a spokesman for civil rights group, Liberty, said the tests 
ran the risk of "turning perfectly innocent children into supposed drug 
abusers. If they refuse to be tested, the implication is obvious: they've 
got something to hide."

But Mr Walker, who has been involved in drug education for more than 10 
years, insists the initiative has the backing of the vast majority of 
parents, pupils and staff.

"We have written to all the parents and of those that replied 86% have 
given their permission. Overall, two-thirds have actively supported what we 
are doing which is a fairly impressive response rate." He said most 
"heart-warming" was the fact that 40 members of staff had volunteered to be 

But there are dissenting voices at the school. Thirteen-year-old Robert 
Warren says he will refuse the test if selected.

"I didn't like the sound of this when I first heard about it and I still 
don't," he said. "It costs a lot of money and I don't think it will work. 
You would have to be pretty stupid to take drugs in school and people can 
refuse whenever they want so what are they actually going to find out from 
all this effort?

"If kids who do take drugs want help there are lots of places for them 
outside school, this just seems like a big waste of time."

Although Faversham is known locally as the "brown town" because of its 
heroin problem, Mr Williams insists the school is no worse than others 
around the country. "It is probably better because we are proactive rather 
than pretending it doesn't exist," he said.

The scheme has already won support from Tony Blair and the Conservative 
party leader Michael Howard.

Lesley Temple, who runs the school's extensive student welfare programme, 
including the random drugs tests, insisted it was right to tackle the issue 
head-on. "Denying that drugs are an issue for young people is the same as 
schools who say bullying is not a problem - it is a disservice to young 
people to behave like that.

"Drugs are getting cheaper and more and more people are taking them and we 
simply can't ignore that. The tests give the children a reason to say no. 
Even in the past week I have heard them saying to each other 'I can't take 
drugs because it will show up in the tests'. Giving them that reason and 
excuse to stand up to peer pressure is invaluable."

Under the scheme, pupils are picked at random by a computer and if a child 
tests positive the parents will be called in and offered support and 
guidance. The results are only known to the headteacher and only in extreme 
cases will students be expelled.

"We are not looking to kick anybody out," said Mr Walker. "We want to help 
these children and their parents."

The tests, which are being sponsored by a tabloid newspaper and the 
manufacturers of the testing kit, will initially run for six months.

"So far the response has been quite incredible," said Mr Walker, 
brandishing a copy of an article about the school that appeared yesterday 
in the Times of Oman. "The school has featured on talk shows in France and 
the US and this week we have two television crews from Spain coming in to 

He said there had also been huge interest from other schools around the UK.

"At the moment they are sitting on the fence and watching because it is 
such a hot political potato but there is real interest out there in what we 
are doing."

The school will assess the impact of the initiative on pupil behaviour and 
exam results before deciding whether to continue the tests at the end of 
the trial period.



The Department of Health's most recent survey reveals:

42% of pupils said they had been offered drugs, with cannabis being by far 
the most common

21% of pupils said they had taken drugs in the previous year

8% of 11-year-olds said they had taken drugs in the past 12 months. That 
figure rose to

38% among 15-year-olds

12% of those surveyed said they had taken drugs in the past month, with 1% 
saying they took drugs most days, 2% at least once a week, and 3% once or 
twice a month

13% of pupils aged 11 to 15 said they had tried cannabis in the past 12 months

4% of 11-15-year-olds said they had taken a class A drug in the past year; 
1% said they had taken heroin and 1% said they had taken cocaine

Source - Department of Health survey of 10,000 pupils carried out in the 
autumn term of 2003 and published in 2004 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake