Making the Grade

by Liz McCulloch

Making the Grade: School Prevention, Identification and Responses to Drug-related Harm 

You can download the full report here

Executive Summary

This report considers how the UK’s education system responds to drugs by examining the approaches taken to preventing, identifying and responding to illegal drug use and selling in schools. It looks at the policy frameworks that these responsibilities operate within and considers how efficacious they are in safeguarding children and young people from drug-related harm.

Key Findings

New and Emerging Challenges

Higher numbers of children are using illegal drugs and ‘new’ drugs, such as Lean and Xanax, have become more readily available. Significantly more young people are being prosecuted and convicted for supplying Class A drugs, which is indicative of rising child criminal exploitation such as ‘county lines’.

At the same time, more young people are turning to social media for information, where screening of content is negligible and platforms are being infiltrated by drug dealers.

These developments urgently demand high-quality, sustained drugs education in schools and the implementation of drugs policies and interventions that effectively safeguard young people.


The need for universal drugs education in schools

Historically, there has been an absence of frequent, high-quality, early drugs education in mainstream schools. In recent years, the prioritisation of performance targets has further squeezed PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education) out of timetables and funding cuts to schools and local support services have limited training and delivery.

An increasing rate of exclusions has put pupil referral units (PRUs) under significant strain and examples were given to Volteface and Mentor of PRUs that would ‘firefight’ instead of investing in preventative measures. However, it was found that timetable flexibility, pragmatism around drugs and close multi-agency links did facilitate the delivery of drugs education in the PRUs.

Government guidance on mandatory drugs education

The Government is to be commended for its decision to make drugs education mandatory in all primary and secondary schools by 2020. However, a number of concerns remain about the draft guidance set out in the policy. The guidance does not require schools to: collaborate with pupils, parents and local partners; draw on recommended resources from the Department for Education; deliver sustained drugs education; provide drugs education for children in sixth forms and other education settings targeted towards 16 to 18-year-olds; or teach topics relating to real life situations and decision-making. The guidance does not specify any additional funding and there are concerns that they will be just another burden placed upon an already overstretched education system.

Considered thought must be given as to how statutory drugs education will be implemented to prevent this potentially watershed moment from becoming a mere tick-box exercise.


Where a young person is using or selling drugs their willingness to disclose this can depend on their expectations of how their school will respond. Non-statutory guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Department for Education does not advise schools to share their drug policy with pupils. Young people in focus groups held by Volteface and Mentor could only guess as to what action their school would take. Most assumed the response would be punitive or, at the very least, confidentiality would be broken, and thus said they would be reluctant to speak to an authority figure about it.

Mainstream schools’ ability to identify risk factors or early indicators of harm has been compromised by a reduction in staff contact time, PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education) lessons, pastoral support and the withdrawal of external services.

PRUs have come under significant criticism for being a fertile ground for exploitation and the initiation or continuation of substance use. However, examples were given to Volteface and Mentor of PRUs where small classroom sizes, regular meetings with pupils, close multi-agency links, and familiarity with drug-related harm made them well-placed to monitor pupil health and safety and foster trust in pupils.


Where a pupil is involved in a drug-related incident, non-statutory guidance advises that they should have early access to support and that exclusions should be treated as a last resort. Evidence has shown that exclusions can erode trust in authority figures, increase the likelihood of drug use or exploitation, and have a damaging impact on life chances.

Official data has shown that drug and alcohol-related exclusions in mainstream secondary schools have risen significantly in the past five years and at a higher rate than other exclusion types.

This increase was attributed by contributors to this report to rising drug use and exploitation into the drugs trade, which many saw to be a consequence of cuts to school staff, internal pastoral services and external young person support services that could have provided early interventions. Increasing focus on performance targets has also created incentives to expel disruptive or under-achieving pupils.

Many contributors highlighted that PRUs tended to be more pragmatic towards drugs and would try and keep the young person attending the PRU, rather than exclude them, if drug-related harm was identified.

With no statutory guidance stipulating how schools should respond to drug use or selling, it is deeply worrying that the potential for an unfair and inconsistent and, at times, discriminatory approach to drug-related incidents exists.


With children facing new and emerging challenges around drugs, there is an urgent need for the UK’s education system to adopt approaches to drug use and selling which are consistent, evidence-based and, most importantly, promote the best interests of young people.

Though PRUs have been criticised for putting children at a greater risk of drug-related harm, this report identified examples of good practice, which other educational settings would do well to learn from.

If the Government’s plan to make drugs education mandatory in all schools by 2020 is to have the impact it should, politicians and policy-makers must be willing to face the realities around young people and drug use and prioritise equipping them with the best tools and support available.


1. The Government’s draft guidance on making drugs education mandatory in schools by 2020 should be amended so that it requires schools to: implement a health education policy and programme that has been co-produced with pupils, parents and local partners; draw from Department for Education recommended resources; deliver drugs education in sixth forms and other educational settings for 16 to 18-year-olds; deliver drugs education, at least, every year; and cover topics that relate to real life situations and decision-making.

2. The Department for Education should provide funding for schools to support the implementation of mandatory drugs education.

3. The Department for Education should ensure that the core content for initial teacher training includes delivering drugs education, and identifying and responding to drug use and selling.

4. Teachers should aim to build trusted relationships with pupils and provide a safe space for them to confidentially ask questions about drugs.

5. A safeguarding alert should be made when an assessment is made that there is an immediate or significant risk of harm to a young person. Before breaking confidentiality, staff should decide on next steps in partnership with the young person, ensuring they are at the centre of any process.

6. The Government should partner with pupils, parents and relevant professionals and draw on best practice to co-create statutory guidance that advises schools on how they should respond if there is evidence or disclosure of drug use or selling. Drug use and selling be understood as an indicator of vulnerability, rather than criminality.

7. School drug policies, explaining how the school would respond if there was evidence or disclosure of drug use or selling, should be up-to-date and circulated to pupils, parents, school staff and local partners and teachers at least once a term.

8. Exclusions, ‘off-rolling’ and the provision of pastoral support should receive greater scrutiny by Ofsted and additional funding should be made available to help schools meet this expectation.

You can download the full report here

This report was written by Liz McCulloch & Scarlett Furlong, in partnership with Mentor.

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