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Liddell claims there are pre-school addicts

By LUCY PATTON

SCOTTISH Education Minister Helen Liddell yesterday joined the row over excluding school pupils found with drugs by declaring that some children were addicted before they reached school age.

However, a Scottish Office spokeswoman later admitted that there was no statistical evidence on drug use among children so young.

She said that Mrs Liddell's comments on children below primary school age using drugs were from "predominately anecdotal experience". She added that the Minister had been referring to children who had been born addicted to drugs because their parents were addicts.

Mrs Liddell's comments came after the Conservatives criticised Education Minister Estelle Morris for "undercutting the position" of headteachers with her advice that schools should think twice before excluding pupils found with drugs.

Conservative Education Spokesman David Willetts said Ministers were interfering too much in the day-to-day running of schools.

However, Mrs Liddell said: "There are some pupils coming into schools from homes where drug abuse is the norm. There are some children who will be addicts before they even get to school."

She said the grounds for immediate expulsion should be habitual drug use - open, overt drug use or encouraging drug use in others.

Mrs Liddell added: "Many teachers are in an intolerable position and they need coherent guidelines." Referring to Mr Willetts'' comments, she said: "These irresponsible, sweeping statements devalue the work being done."

Recent Scottish cases in which children have been involved in drugs include a seven-year-old boy from Stirling who handed over his mother's heroin supply to his school teacher and an 11-year-old boy who was found in possession of heroin with a street value of 500 at a Glasgow primary school.

A senior Government source yesterday claimed Ms Morris had merely been reinforcing the last administration's advice on drugs.

The police and parents should always be informed when children were found with drugs in schools, but the final decision on school discipline should rest with a school's head and governors, said the source.

Ms Morris sparked the row by saying that unless children were caught trafficking - when exclusion should be automatic - schools should adopt a flexible approach, considering children's welfare and education alongside punishment. Critics accused her of undermining the fight against drugs in schools by diluting the message to children.

Mr Willetts said yesterday: "What Estelle Morris is doing is undercutting the position of heads yet again. The Government will be telling heads what to do and will make it very difficult for a head to expel or exclude a child."

But Ms Morris won backing from Unison, whose national officer John Findlay said: "Drug taking in schools should be treated seriously and speedily.

"However, it is too simplistic to say kids should be excluded, that the problem should be put back on to the streets. The kids do end up on the streets - no other school will have them and that just adds to the problem."

The Government plans to publish new guidelines later this week, stressing the importance of discouraging drug abuse through education - starting with children as young as five.

Ms Morris urged a flexible approach after announcing a 22.5m boost for drugs education over the next three years.

However, Mr John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, accused her of potentially undermining school discipline, and said: "There is enormous pressure from governors and parents to make schools a drug-free zone and the Government should support schools doing that."

The senior Government source said yesterday Ministers would support any school that wanted to adopt a zero tolerance approach towards drugs.

- Nov 18