Headlines: February 23rd, 2005

Random drug-testing in schools should not be encouraged until there is better evidence about its likely impact according to a research review today. The paper says in spite of political endorsements for drug-testing programmes by Tony Blair and the Conservative leader, Michael Howard, there is little high-quality evidence to show it is effective in reducing drug use among young people.The review has been produced for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by Neil McKeganey, Professor of Drug Misuse Research at the University of Glasgow. He says encouragement for schools to introduce random testing of pupils would be an ethically complex move which might have unintended adverse consequences. As a result he argues that it would be better to avoid the ad hoc spread of testing programmes.

Professor McKeganey has examined current policy on drug testing in schools and international research, including studies in the United States where such programmes are widespread and have strong political support.

He finds that random schemes only test a small selection of pupils and are most likely to identify pupils who occasionally use cannabis and less likely to help in getting early support for pupils with more serious drug problems. He argues, too, that imposing drug-testing programmes could undermine trust between pupils and staff and could also give rise to calls for staff to be tested as well, which teachers and their unions might resist.

The professor believes that one perverse consequence of drug-testing could be to encourage some pupils to switch from use of cannabis and other substances that can be traced a relatively long time after use, to drugs that are cleared from the body much more quickly, including heroin. He has found little clear information on the cost of drug testing programmes. Much, he says, depends on how many pupils are routinely tested and whether the tests are designed to confirm that illegal drugs have been taken, or just to indicate that they might have been used.

The report points to the fact that the guidance on drug testing from the Department of Education is cautious about the development of random testing.