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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 July, 2004, 12:16 GMT 13:16 UK
Head teacher opts for drugs testing
By Katherine Sellgren
BBC News Online education staff

Head teacher Peter Walker is introducing random drugs testing at his school in January next year. He believes this is the best way forward in the fight against drug abuse.

Until recently, Mr Walker was against random drugs testing in schools, believing the political climate was not supportive.

But when, in February, the prime minister, Tony Blair, said head teachers would be given powers to introduce such measures, Mr Walker decided to take him up on the offer.

"Prevention is not often appreciated, but it's by far the most effective way if you can get it to work," says Mr Walker, head of The Abbey School in Faversham, Kent.

"And I think random drugs testing is probably the best form of prevention that's open to me at this particular time.

"To say there's a big drugs problem in schools is fallacious, but we do have our part to play and that's what I want to do. I really wish there wasn't a need for this."

I have to be aware of the law and I don't want to infringe any civil liberties
Peter Walker
Naturally, the notion of random drugs testing raises questions about privacy and civil liberties, but Mr Walker says he is primarily seeking "quality of life" for his pupils.

"I respect people's right to question it all, but I ask them to bear in mind the rights of the majority and their right to learn unhindered.

"And that means in an environment where they are not being affected by people who are behaving badly or suffering mood swings because of the effects of drugs."

Voluntary participation

Since Mr Blair's announcement, Mr Walker has been examining all the legal and practical implications of bringing in tests at his school in the Swale district of Kent - the second most deprived area in the county according to council statistics.

Plans are going well and, although he had hoped to get the testing underway by September, pupils will now face testing in the New Year.

The Abbey School entrance
Pupils at The Abbey School will be tested from January
"I'm trying not to leave any stone unturned, I don't want to take any undue risks. I have to be aware of the law and I don't want to infringe any civil liberties," says Mr Walker.

On that point, Mr Walker stresses that no-one will be forced to take part.

Parents have to give their consent for their children to be tested. And on the day of testing, the pupils themselves will be asked if they wish to take part or abstain.

Mr Walker is confident the scheme will make an impact and hopes peer pressure will encourage pupils not to abstain from the testing.

"It's actually having a big effect already," he says.

"There are rumours of children asking when it's going to start and saying 'I'm not going to try any stuff now, it's not worth it'."

Random selection

A computer will randomly select 20 of the 1,000 pupils at the school every week and two swabs will be taken from their mouths. One will be sent off for analysis and returned within three days, the other will be kept in a safe in case of a positive test.

The swabs will be done by someone independent of the school, preferably from the medical profession.

The tests will pick up on use of cannabis, speed, ecstasy, heroin and cocaine.

If a pupil does give a positive test, Mr Walker does not plan to involve the police or expel that child.

"The parents will be called in and I'll discuss appropriate action. The priority will be help - counselling of some type and we'll bring in the right agency for that child.

"If I identify a dealer or a pusher on the other hand, it would be a different course of action. Then the police would be involved and that person would be kicked out of school."

Staff involvement

The drugs testing will not just be open to pupils, but also to staff - teachers and non-teachers alike.

"I've had quite a lot of responses from people wanting to take part. But it won't be a condition of service."

So will Mr Walker be taking part in the random drugs testing?

"Obviously. In fact, I'll probably be doing it more than anyone!"

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