From Scotsman.com, 23/02/05...
Expert doubts drug tests are deterrent
RANDOM drug testing in schools should not be rolled out across the country until there is clear proof that it prevents young people from getting involved in substance abuse, according to a Scots academic.
Professor Neil McKeganey of Glasgow University said there is little evidence at the moment to suggest that it stops pupils from taking drugs.
The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, announced plans to introduce random drug testing in English schools last year, although the Scottish Executive has consistently refused to follow Westminster’s lead.
So far, only one school in England - Abbey School in Faversham, Kent - has introduced the controversial measure.
But Prof McKeganey’s report, which was carried out on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has said that random testing may be "potentially damaging" and should not be introduced in schools across the country until more research has been carried out into its effectiveness.
"In the absence of robust evaluation, student drug testing will continue to be promoted or contested on the basis of political viewpoint and opinion rather than evidence, and we will be no nearer to answering the question of whether it works," his report said.
Prof McKeganey points out that although random drug testing is already common in American schools, the evidence that it actually works in reducing drug abuse is "remarkably thin".
He said random schemes are most likely to identify pupils who occasionally use cannabis and are less likely to get early support for young people with serious drug problems.
Another potential side effect is that pupils may be tempted to stop taking substances such as cannabis, which are easy to trace because they stay in the body longer, and move on to harder drugs such as heroin, which clear the system more quickly.
Prof McKeganey also criticised the government’s decision to downgrade cannabis from a class B drug to class C at the same time as the Prime Minister was giving his support for drug tests in schools.
He said: "The coincidence of these two developments stands as a clear sign of the confusion which cannabis elicits on the part of those in government.
"We have a situation where a young person may receive a formal warning from a police officer for being found in possession of cannabis and yet be permanently excluded from school for having failed a drug test for the same substance."
The report concluded: "Until the evidence one way or another is available, it would seem prudent for the government to advise caution rather than encourage experimentation with a costly and potentially damaging new approach to drug prevention."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills in London insisted random testing was only one tool available to help schools tackle drug use. She said: "Headteachers are best-placed to determine the range of approaches to tackle drugs in their schools according to their local circumstances, and we trust them to make the decisions that are right for their schools.
"Where they believe it necessary, of course we fully support heads who take tough steps to tackle drugs in schools. This is why drug testing is highlighted as an option in the range of strategies they can employ."
A spokeswoman for the Executive said education officials north of the Border had completely rejected the introduction of random drug testing in Scottish schools - and insisted that teachers already had enough powers to deal with the problem. "We asked local authorities and headteachers if they wanted these powers and they said no," she said.
"If a teacher suspects that a child has drugs on them they should phone the police. All schools also have in place drug education policies so that children should be in possession of all the facts and should be able to make informed choices."