Class A drug usage in the UK is on the rise. Statistics from a Crime Survey of England and Wales reveal that around 1.3 million Brits reported using Class A substances in 2018/2019; 3.7% of those aged between 16 and 59. It’s the highest percentage since the survey began in 1996, and is up from a figure of 3.5% the previous year.
It’s a worrying trend. But perhaps even more worrying is the fact that the increase in Class A drug usage is predominantly being driven by the younger population.
In this article, we explore the rise in the number of school children using Class A drugs and how this problem can best be combatted.
Why is this happening?
Recent Department for Education figures reveal a worrying trend: The number of secondary school pupils being permanently excluded as a result of drugs or alcohol rose from 360 in 2012/2013 to 565 in 2016/2017. This is the highest figure since records began.
The same result shows a staggering rise in the number of 15-year-olds being prosecuted for intent to supply, up from 29 in 2012/2013 to 55 in 2016/2017 - a 90% increase.
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But why is this happening? Drug education charity Volteface believes it’s down to an increase in the number of gangs using children - normally the most vulnerable in society - to run “county lines”: transporting Class A drugs from major cities to supply them to more rural areas.
This means that children across the UK are being punished - through exclusion and prosecution - for situations where they are, in fact, the victims. This combination of drug usage and grooming can have a seriously detrimental impact on these children.
Why is it a problem?
Children are vulnerable at the best of times - and using them to peddle Class A substances can have an irreparably damaging effect on many aspects of their lives.
On one hand, this illegal activity can lead to children missing days of school. This can result in poor attendance records, disciplinary action, poor exam results and potentially even expulsion.
"Experimenting with drugs often results in addiction."
But it’s the mental, behavioural and psychological impact that can be most devastating. Experimenting with drugs often results in addiction, and a study reveals that the younger a child is when their drug use begins, the more likely they will be to develop serious health consequences and continue to misuse drugs as an adult.
The same study confirms that “alcohol and other drug use in the adolescent population carries a higher risk for school underachievement, delinquency, teenage pregnancy, and depression”.
In short, a child’s drug usage during their schooldays can seriously affect not only their present but their future, too. So how can headteachers and school governors respond to reduce the ever-growing number of school-age Class A drug users?
Could in-school drug testing be the answer?
The onus is on school administrators to provide the children in their care with a safe and healthy environment in which to learn and develop. If drug use is a problem, however, is this really possible?
"Some schools are introducing drug testing to help combat the problem."
Historically, the focus has always been on educating children about the dangers of drug use, but the growing number of 16-24-year-olds using Class A substances suggests that this approach is simply not working. Instead, some schools are introducing drug testing to help combat the problem. This is either in the form of random drug tests, or, as is becoming increasingly common in the US, testing school athletes for substance misuse before they compete.
However, before introducing such testing, schools will need to cultivate a well-structured, comprehensive drug testing policy, a copy of which all students and parents must be provided with. This policy should also include a section about testing teachers and other school staff, to keep the environment completely safe.
Before testing occurs, the school will need to obtain permission from both the students and their parents. The specific type of testing will also need to be decided in advance, and will depend on whether the school needs to know which drugs are currently in a student’s system. Will it be post-incident testing, when a student is suspected of being under the influence of Class A drugs, or random testing (which is less common in UK schools)? Will the school use oral fluid testing, which reveals whether drugs are currently in the student’s system, or something like hair testing, which can look at patterns of longer-term use?
Finally, should a student (or teacher) test positive for Class A drug use, the drug policy should make the next steps clear. Will the outcome be punishment or support and rehabilitation?
Bucking the trend
The increase in Class A drug usage amongst the UK’s school-aged children is a worrying trend, and one that can have devastating effects - both in the short and long-term. It’s vital that schools and authorities work together to combat the issue.
This means providing affected children with the help and support that they need. Drug education is clearly not having the desired impact, So it could be that drug testing plays a part in helping tackle this growing issue.
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