Tabloid tries to save our youth

Observations on drugs

Is random drug testing in schools a good idea? The News of the World thinks so. It was "time for education bosses to kick-start testing across the nation", the paper said recently. It quoted Peter Walker, head of the Abbey School in Faversham, Kent, the first British state school to pilot drug testing. "Our results," he said, "show testing really works."

The six-month pilot had then been taking weekly swabs for less than a month from the cheeks of 20 volunteer pupils, chosen at random. None had proved positive. The only excitement - and the basis for the success claims - was that one student had refused the test. He was interviewed, admitted being a user of illegal drugs and, in miraculously quick time, was reported to be "off drugs" following counselling.

All this premature enthusiasm becomes less puzzling when you learn that the News of the World has given the school £10,000 to help fund the experiment. The sample testing is handled by the Warrington-based company Altrix Healthcare. Though it seems well-placed to exploit a new market, the company is not half so gung-ho about drug testing in schools as Walker or his tabloid sponsor. Chris Snelson, director of operations, is cautious, even suspicious, of the media bandwagon.

Altrix's tests for police custody suites, workplaces and drug rehabilitation centres need to be robust enough to stand up in court. Reliability and accuracy come at a price - roughly £25 a test for the initial screening. In-depth analysis of a positive result can cost much more: up to £300 for a sample tested for various substances. But there is a cheap and cheerful end of the market. Less accurate, instant tests are available for between £12 and £15.

Last month, Professor Neil McKeganey of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University published an assessment of random testing. He identified ethical, legal and practical difficulties, and questioned whether the testing might do harm, pushing young people away from cannabis but towards other drugs, such as heroin, which are harder to detect.

McKeganey said the News of the World's involvement was "very, very worrisome", but was keeping an open mind on whether random testing would reduce drug-taking. However, Brian Iddon, the Labour MP who has chaired the all-party parliamentary group on drugs misuse, calls it a "complete waste of money". If a child has a spliff at the weekend, he argues, it is no business of any school's. He argues that you do not need tests to find out which students use drugs, and that those with real problems are probably not in school anyway. "The companies are keen on it because it makes a lot of money," Iddon says, pointing out that the industry is entirely unregulated.

So what will happen when the Abbey School trial is declared over and, presumably, a great success? McKeganey fears a rapid proliferation of testing. Schools will make ad hoc arrangements with different testing companies. Procedures will be devised on the hoof. Variable sanctions will be visited on pupils who test positive. Inequity and legal battles will follow.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Faith invaders