Monday, May 24, 1999 Published at 13:39 GMT 14:39 UK
Schools 'over-reacting to drugs'
Drug abuse "should not result in automatic exclusion"
Schools in England are tending to ignore official guidance not to exclude pupils for using drugs except as a last resort, recent research suggests.
It warned that children who were removed from school after occasional misuse of drugs were more likely to get involved in serious abuse and crime.
Children should be expelled, it said, only if they represented a serious risk to the health or safety of other pupils, or had not responded to previous warnings.
Over a two-year period, there were 1,400 temporary exclusions for matters including smoking and alcohol abuse, and 400 permanent exclusions.
The survey found wide variations in school policies. Some reserve exclusion for drugs trafficking in school, while others apply the sanction after first-time offences involving small amounts of cannabis.
It also found that although 78% of schools had written policies on their response to drug or substance abuse, most did not include a clear system of sanctions for pupils discovered to be involved with drugs at school.
Scoda's Chief Executive, Roger Howard, said an estimate based on the figures suggested that there could be as many as 20,000 exclusions a year across the country - up to 4,000 of them permanent.
'Growth in drug use'
"These figures are disappointing and worrying," he said. "We believe children should only be excluded as a matter of last resort. The evidence suggests that pupils who are not in school are much more likely to come into contact with illegal drugs.
"That doesn't mean that schools should never exclude, but it should be seen as the ultimate sanction."
Scoda's survey and guidelines were launched on Friday at the Secondary Heads Association (SHA) conference in Brighton, which was addressed by the government's Anti-Drugs Co-ordinator, Keith Hellawell.
He backed the new guidelines and restated his commitment to reducing the number of children permanently excluded from school for drug-related incidents.
That was for parents, teachers, governors and students themselves to come together to get a policy they could all be satisfied with, he said.
"If we believe that we can just stop the problem by excluding individuals involved we are misled, because the operation as it were goes undercover and there is this, almost this challenge, in some schools, to become involved.
"I'm determined that, with the new educational programmes that we are putting into schools, that young people will realise the damage and danger that drugs can cause to them and they won't be involved in the first place."
But if pupils were caught dealing? It was up to the headteacher concerned, Mr Hellawell said.
"There obviously are cases where students should be expelled straight away and we see some of those in our newspapers, but for the general situation often drugs are not just the whole of the equation - there are legal drugs often involved, rather than illegal drugs, because as you know many people become affected by legal drugs that they are using without prescription," he said.
"I'm meaning, in one context, alcohol - which itself obviously can cause dangers - through to maybe pills that people bring from home, through to the most likely illegal drug is cannabis.
"So it isn't just as simple as 'This person is in possession of a drug'. What is the context of that? What is the relationship with the other students - is this the first occasion?"
SHA's General Secretary, John Dunford, agreed that headteachers had to be given flexibility in disciplinary matters.
"Clearly, people are concerned about the way exclusions have increased, but the reason is the massively increased pressure on schools to achieve results and parental approval.
"We have to make sure all children have the right conditions in which to work and learn. As a result, disciplinary offences have been dealt with more severely.
"The growth in exclusions also reflects a growth in drugs in schools. Schools have been determined to create at least one area in children's lives where they are free from temptation."