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Friday, April 14, 2006 

Random drug tests for all! Hallelujah!

Sometimes the policies of the government on education make you wonder whether there's a grand conspiracy between them and some of the "old-school" teachers, the sort who hated children and were only in the profession to pass on their bitterness and cynicism. Random drug testing in one school has apparently "worked", says everyone's favourite member of Opus Dei, Ruth Kelly. She's proposing that headteachers across the country should follow the lead of the Abbey school in Faversham, Kent.

Speaking at the NASUWT conference in Birmingham, Ms Kelly told delegates the school had seen a marked improvement in performance since the scheme started and said she would welcome other schools adopting a similar scheme.

"Drugs is ... an issue which is not going away in schools," she said. "I was looking at the evidence from the Abbey school the other day where they have tried random drug testing and found that a hugely effective way of creating peer pressure against taking drugs in school."

The Abbey school has seen GCSE exam results improve significantly after introducing random testing. The school selects 20 pupils by computer each week who then take the tests, during which they are swabbed by specially trained staff.

The samples are sent off to a laboratory where they are checked for traces of drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy.

Yesterday Peter Walker, the headteacher who introduced the scheme, said the government's support was "very important". More than 500 pupils had been tested and only one had proved positive. "The school has had the best 18 months in its history and its best exam results," he said. Tests had given pupils a reason not to take drugs.

Err, creating peer pressure? Surely what she means is creating fear in the children that their activities outside of school would as a result be found out, that they may well be expelled for doing so, and that their parents would be informed. Drugs have never been a major issue of peer pressure in schools, in comparison to wearing the "right" clothes, or being in with the popular children. Drug use is usually confined to a tiny amount of those who have already given up on school, either in the 10th or 11th year. Most as a result are harmless, and don't interrupt the learning of those who want to be there.

Kelly also hasn't looked at possible other reasons for the increase in good GCSE results. Isn't it possible that the teaching may have improved during the years since the last group had moved up? Or, although this might be considered offensive by some, that the year group whose results have improved were possibly more intelligent than the year before?

More than anything though, isn't random testing manifestly unfair to those who are picked? Wouldn't it be fairer to test the entire year group, all at once, on an unannounced date? Also of concern is that some drugs, such as cannabis, can stay in the body for weeks after use. A teenager may have given into temptation during the school holidays, yet still be found positive for a particular drug.

And that, there, is the rub. What business is it of the school that children take drugs, as long as they are not doing so on the school premises? Taking cannabis, the most used drug among teenagers, is no longer an arrestable offence, even though it remains illegal. Surely such matters should be with the parents, not with teachers who think they know better how to bring up their children? The teenage years are meant to be those in that children experiment, discover themselves and start to figure how what to do with the rest of their lives. The imposition of such rules on those in school - CCTV in the toilets, random bag searches for weapons, uniform that removes any sense of individuality, the Academy scheme in which businesses can have their input on a significant part of the curriculum, in some places in-school police officers or security guards; all suggest that the only interest of government now in education is in turning out unquestioning automatons that can stack the shelves in Tesco, while the same old middle class parents can send their children to the private institutions or the top comprehensives which keep the proles in the same place they've always been. All of which doesn't bode well for the future, and for the government's target of eventually 50% going to university, and in getting more to stay on post-16.

How to change this? Cut the amount of exams taken, and make learning fun again, instead of just teaching the bare minimum that will result in the passing of exams. Other suggestions are very welcome.

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