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Weaning teachers off zero tolerance of drugs

Sunday Times, 27th October 2002

An Uncompromising Stand By Schools On Drugs Is Unjust And Doomed To Failure, Says Mark Pyper, The Head Of Gordonstoun

The government’s downgrading of cannabis from a class B to a class C drug has been viewed with alarm by some head teachers, who worry that it may make it more difficult for them to keep schools drug-free. I do not believe that it will make any difference - as long as schools have the right policies in the first place. At Gordonstoun we abandoned the ‘zero tolerance’ policy - automatic expulsion for a single drugs offence - in 1996, recognising that it was unrealistic, unreasonable and unhelpful.

Zero tolerance policies were tried in our schools from the 1970s to the 1990s and were found wanting, not least in practical terms. The possibility, particularly in a boarding school, of a sufficiently large number of students being discovered with cannabis and facing expulsion that the school would perhaps have to close through a sudden fall in revenue might sound fanciful but is within the realms of reality.

Nowadays, in mediating between parents and pupils, head teachers have a useful role to play in the drugs debate. Parents need to be guided away from the syndrome of hanging and flogging towards a policy of reasonableness and empathy that their children will appreciate also.

In bridging the yawning divide between the generations teachers should start by leading parents into the world of potentially unwelcome reality. Parents need to appreciate the nature of the drugs threat: the names of drugs, both official and on the streets; their composition and possible effects, physiologically and psychologically; the symptoms displayed by users; the legal position; the assistance that is available to all parties.

In achieving this, parents are not only increasing their understanding, they are coming to terms with a phenomenon they will then not automatically reject in fear but over which they will have control.

Both pupils and parents need a policy that is absolutely clear and uncompromising but which has an awareness of the world and an empathy with the young at its core. That is why many schools changed their policies in the mid-1990s and why government reclassification, under which cannabis is still illegal, is not really a relevant issue for schools with such policies.

There is an immediate moral shortcoming to zero tolerance and enforced immediate departure for every single drugs offender. Parents who will subscribe only to a school that is ‘clean’ in drug terms should consider the case of the student who has been at a school for 4 years and is within months of taking her A-levels. She has been a model pupil - industrious, co-operative, responsible - but then, almost unwittingly, makes a minor error of judgment and consumes a microscopic amount of cannabis - perhaps just one puff of a cigarette passed to her.

Where is the morality in requiring such a girl to be excluded immediately and permanently without consideration for past record, future prospects or comparison with alcoholic misdemeanours? A successful drugs policy will emphasise prevention through education and cure rather than trading in peremptory exclusion. On the sanctions side, it will have to underline that some offences - use of category A ( hard ) drugs or trafficking - merit instant expulsion.

However, for a single use of a class B or C drug such as cannabis, there may be an opportunity to learn. The policy will insist on a period of suspension from school, followed by periodic drug testing when the pupil returns - for the remainder of her career. A positive test, pupil and parents have to agree together, will mean her leaving the school. The test may be taken at any time and, as cannabis can stay in the bloodstream for three to four weeks, the student has to think carefully about her behaviour, even in holiday periods.

Students as well as parents need education. They also need a policy that is clear but reasonable. ( This, incidentally, can involve informing the police of all drug incidents, provided the young know this will happen ). Above all, they need an environment that fosters informed discussion on a difficult topic.

This is where zero tolerance is so damaging and frequently serves to increase the amount of drug-taking in a school. In making a taboo of the subject, a school will drive drugs even more into the shadows where they flourish more profusely while the innocent, the ignorant and the potentially vulnerable have nowhere to go for help and advice.

Young people in the alternative, supportive environment I advocate will openly ask for a drugs test to establish innocence when an accusation or suggestion of drugs involvement has been made. Students can, and do, approach school staff, in the most genuine manner, to express concern about the possibility of a friend consuming something illicit, knowing that the matter will be properly dealt with.

It is possible to create a school environment where the pupils will not want drugs to be prevalent or even present. The good school will offer its pupils a positive ethos of challenge and controlled risk taking, an alternative scenario to the supposed verboten delights of the underworld. 


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