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Drugs Epidemic In Top Public Schools

Sophie Goodchild and Jonathan Owen, The Independent, 19th December 2005

A crisis over drug abuse in Britain's top public schools has prompted the creation of rehabilitation and counselling schemes in a radical overhaul of ways of dealing with offending pupils.

The ditching of the schools' so-called "zero tolerance" approach is a stark admission that the expulsion of pupils caught using drugs has failed.

Public schools do not keep official figures on the extent of drug use among pupils or how many they have expelled. However, an internal report produced by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents the UK's leading independent schools, found that just under half of pupils in the lower sixth had experimented with drugs and that one in eight was a regular user. Among 14- and 15-year-old pupils, nearly a third had experimented with drugs and one in 10 regularly used cannabis.

Incidents of drug abuse are now so "commonplace" that public schools are having to resort to progressive approaches. Eton has brought in an expert from The Priory, one of Britain's leading addiction centres, to offer talking therapies to at-risk boys, while Malvern College has employed a drugs counsellor.

Eton has been at the centre of controversy over drugs since Prince Harry, a former pupil, was caught smoking cannabis in the holidays. Another Old Etonian, David Cameron, the new Tory leader, repeatedly refused to answer questions about alleged past drug use.

The admission that the hardline approach is failing comes as the Association of Chief Police Officers is also expected to warn headteachers that using sniffer dogs and subjecting pupils to random drug tests are not the solution to dealing with spiralling drug use in schools.

Anthony Little, headmaster of Eton College, said pupils who "come clean" are offered the chance to talk about their problems and sign up to a drug testing contract, but those found dealing or taking drugs are still expelled.

Figures to be published next month in the Good Schools Guide will reveal the changed attitudes among Britain's most exclusive academic institutions, including Winchester and Millfield.

The number of independent schools which have a policy of expelling pupils with a drug habit has more than halved over the past five years. Fewer than one in 30 still use a hardline approach.

Ralph Lucas, the publisher of the guide, which is regarded as the bible for affluent parents, said the shift in attitudes has partly been prompted by parents who now equate smoking cannabis with getting drunk.

Lord Mancroft, a member of the all-party group on the misuse of drugs, welcomed the change in approach and said that schools had a duty to help pupils who experiment with drugs.

"A school is a microcosm of society and they should not throw children back at the parents by expelling them," said the chairman of Mentor UK, which helps prevent drug misuse, himself a reformed addict.

In the run-up to the election, Tony Blair pledged that schools hit by drugs problems would be given the power to take samples from students. However, it is understood that these plans have been watered down after lawyers advised the measure would breach the human rights of pupils.

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