Independent drug consultant, Adrian King, questions the wisdom of drug testing in schools, arguing that it undermines the support offered to pupils through effective PSHE and sends out a clear message that pupils are not to be trusted.

Interest in random drug testing of pupils at school has continued to ferment. Support for it may be limited at present to a small number of schools but it has a strong and vociferous advocate in Peter Walker, ex-headteacher of the Abbey School, Faversham, Kent. The DfES is interested in the experience of his school and others, such as the National School, Hucknall.

Since last I wrote about testing in Secondary Headship (June 2005) Mr Walker has retired from his post and has been advising government on random drug testing guidance. In Kent, 103 schools have indicated their readiness to try a testing regime. Five schools on Merseyside are doing the same. It seems a good moment to re-examine the case for testing.

The DfES document Drugs: Guidance for Schools is cautious and recognises the possibility of less-than-plain sailing for any school wishing to conduct tests on pupils. However, the issue is more complex than even the DfES makes it seem, as we shall see.

A simple concept

The concept of testing is a simple one. Certain drugs, cannabis in particular, can be detected for a period following their use by testing blood, urine or saliva. If schools want to enforce their rules against the possession or use of illegal drugs on their premises, they may employ testing as a means of deterring and catching wrongdoers. Testing every pupil would be time-consuming, inconvenient and expensive, so the notion of random testing could seem more attractive.

Despite obvious differences, there are some parallels to the traffic speed camera, whose principal purpose, ostensibly, is to deter, though it can also catch. Cameras are unpopular with many drivers, particularly those in a hurry, but supported by politicians, police and some local authorities. Traffic seems to have slowed as a result. So, unless you’re a pupil with drugs, what can the objections to testing possibly be?

Let us go back a step. When the DfES guidance was drafted, no mention was made of the word ‘random’. Testing was addressed to guide schools who wanted to test pupils who they suspected  were involved with illegal drugs, but who denied it. The word ‘random’ did not appear in the final document, either. It was only when the document was launched that the Prime Minister announced that the document conferred ‘new powers’ upon headteachers to conduct ‘random drug testing’.

This was wholly misleading as the new document did no such thing and because new powers were not being given to headteachers by any other route, either. This was not the scenario upon which the DfES had published guidance. The testing envisaged was as an occasional, grave response to a suspect’s denial. Random testing is a procedure that will necessarily be carried out on a greater proportion of innocent young people than transgressors. In order to be carried out, it would have to become regular, if not routine. The goalposts for this are in a rather different place.

Practical difficulties

Many objections to a routine testing regime relate to practical difficulties in administering or interpreting the tests reliably. Others are concerned with the pupils’ human rights and the complex legal and ethical issues that arise, causing problems for the school, to say nothing of heartache for parents and offspring if false or unreliable accusations ensue.

Others point out that such a regime diverts valuable funds from more educationally sound ventures. I shall not deal with these concerns here, though they represent a vital area for any school considering a testing policy. Some key references are given later.

Let us instead look at the reasons why schools might find the idea of testing attractive and see how well they hold up to scrutiny. The most obvious reason to test is to try to achieve (or keep) a school drug-free. One large-scale study in the USA studied 76,000 pupils from over 300 high schools that numbered testers and non-testers. The study found:

  • the drug-testing status of schools had no influence on prevalence of drug use by young people
  • the kind of drug testing (random, suspicion-less or targeted) made no difference to drug use by pupils
  • those least at risk (ie athletes) and those most at risk (ie ‘experienced’ cannabis users – reporting use on 20 or more occasions) were equally likely to report drug use, no matter whether their school had implemented drug testing or not.

The study even reports some legal analysts’ suggestions that a drug-testing policy may increase the problem of drugs in schools – perhaps offering a challenge. Despite the limitations of the study’s cross-sectional design, its findings do not offer encouragement to schools considering testing. Perhaps drug testing might not achieve its main purpose.

Reducing harm to pupils

A second commonly-stated wish is to reduce, or even banish, the harm from drugs to the school’s pupils. This is the earnest wish of everyone involved in addressing drug use by young people. So how well does testing deliver this goal? The study quoted above suggests not very well; however, the question is more complicated than that. We need to ask: does the school’s concern for health extend beyond the threat of illegal drugs and past the school term into holidays? And beyond school life and into adulthood?

These questions are crucial. If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then two further questions arise, namely: is it the school’s legitimate role to ‘police’ young people’s personal behaviour outside school? And how well is the school managing to prepare young people for adulthood in this respect? There is bad news whichever way you look, for if the school is only concerned with what pupils do at school, or in the school term, then those pupils may perceive that detecting wrongdoing clearly has a higher priority for the school than their long-term health.

However, if the school is genuine in its wish to help its young people secure lasting physical and mental wellbeing, and leaving aside the issue of policing outside its boundaries, it needs to have in place a well-planned and delivered health curriculum within PSHE. This needs a supportive atmosphere, where sensitive and sometimes controversial issues can be explored safely and openly. It may be hard to develop such an atmosphere if the pupils feel that the school is principally an adversary.

I have heard a headteacher argue that the only pupils who feel threatened by testing are those who have or use drugs. This may not be an unreasonable assertion. However, those who have or use drugs fall into two broad categories: those who are using for fun and enjoyment, and who want to stay safe and well, and those using drugs to treat personal pain, who are often reckless about their own safety.

Both groups, obviously, need to learn about rules and laws and the dangers drugs may pose. However, the second, smaller group is potentially at greater risk. They are tomorrow’s problem drug users and there is an urgent need and a responsibility to identify these people and ensure that appropriate support is provided. Involvement with drugs is not usually their greatest problem; underlying difficulties are commonly long-term and serious. Sexual and other abuses figure commonly in this group.

One of the most effective ways of identifying such momentous needs in schools is to nurture a climate within which young people feel safe enough to disclose their troubles. If these are the very pupils who feel most threatened by a testing regime, how likely is disclosure? And how likely is a random-testing regime to pick out a user and then distinguish the problem user from those seeking excitement?

Selective interest

Another significant issue is the fact that testing, in the main, is solely aimed at identifying illegal drugs. The tests at the Abbey School and the National School were mainly for cannabis, cocaine and heroin. But what of the legal drugs, and the dangers they may pose? Drug tests do not seek out drinkers. Yet alcohol is perhaps the most hazardous drug in youth culture, with more than a quarter of 15-16 year olds binge-drinking, and 15% of 16-24s dependent at some level on alcohol. Thirteen teenagers a day are hospitalised either for alcohol poisoning or from injuring themselves while drunk.

How is concern for the health of these young people demonstrated by a drug-testing regime that ignores alcohol? The Abbey School tests did not look for tobacco; or for amphetamine-like, appetite suppressing ‘slimming’ pills; or for evidence of solvent sniffing. Tobacco kills 120,000 people a day (though invariably waiting until long after they have left school).

Eating disorders are much more likely to be treated successfully if they are diagnosed early. Forty-seven people died of volatile substance abuse in 2004. Of these, 15 were in the 11-18 age range, up from eight the previous year. If a school takes the long-term health of its pupils seriously, it needs to develop confidence in their growing competence, and to educate them systematically to treat their health responsibly.

It is highly doubtful whether, even if a well-planned health education strategy is in place, a random drug-testing policy will create a climate in which young people will feel trusted and supported. And if pupils feel hounded, they may not want to cooperate with a health education curriculum that appears to come from an untrusting, authoritarian source.

Indeed, the issue of trust is perhaps the key. For how will pupils feel if they are tested, despite honestly declaring their innocence from any association with drugs? Growing young people need to feel that their views and decisions are respected and that they are being supported by their education (and by their educators) in their growth towards becoming responsible and competent citizens. They need to be prepared to make decisions based upon good information and upon an unshakeable belief in themselves as being worthy of their own care and attention. They need to be thoroughly prepared for being held accountable for their decisions and their actions.

Random drug testing declares that pupils are not to be trusted. This climate undermines good PSHE and the development and support that it may represent – in particular for those who are at serious risk from drug misuse. Without trust, education is impoverished. Sixth form students in a Hertfordshire school were asked recently about random drug testing.

Quotes included:

‘It would be an invasion of our privacy.’ ‘If testing was introduced here, I’d be insulted!’

‘It would be impossible to talk to teachers about drugs.’


Yamaguchi, Johnston and O’Malley (2003) ‘Relationship between student illicit drug use and school drug-testing policies’ published in the (US) Journal of School Health, April 2003

Read the ‘random drug testing’ thread in the Drug Education Forum’s ‘Discussion’ section:

Search for ‘drug testing’ on DrugScope’s home page:

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child:

Search for ‘drug testing’ on the Joseph Rowntree site: