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How schools’ vaping policies are being undermined

The tobacco and vaping bill is wending its way through parliament, and there appears to be a rare glimpse of national unity in the effort to curb the excesses of producers and marketers of these products. But are we all really pulling together for the good of young people?

According to the latest data from the Department of Work and Pensions, “youth vaping has tripled in the last three years, and 1 in 5 children have tried vaping”. Indeed, global news feeds are filled with stories of young people vaping in toilets and other areas of schools – in primaries as well as secondaries.

It’s no wonder. They’re bright, colourful, sometimes wilfully concealed as highlighters and offer Wonka-esque flavour choices. Add in a dose of generational rebellion, and it’s pretty irresistible for some. 

Then there are the excuses. “It’s safer than smoking!” Except that their addictive potential is actually greater than cigarettes. “It calms me down.” Does it really, though? The litany of side effects of nicotine include anxiety, depression and of course withdrawal.

I’m not entirely convinced that handing out severe consequences, as some schools are doing, is quite the deterrent it is intended to be. But these schools are taking action. Their policies, like every school’s, are designed to safeguard pupils.

They influence what they can, whether that’s what happens in school or outside of the school grounds in uniform. But a trend is growing that is undermining these policies. And it’s not coming from defiant teens or parents but allied professionals.

They are being prescribed.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration – but only a slight one. I promise this is happening. GPs aren’t handing out scripts, but in the eyes of some children and their families, what is happening is as good as.

This is the curse of the ‘lesser of two evils’ problem

What we’ve experienced and heard from various teachers and leaders is the curse of the ‘lesser of two evils’ problem: some therapists – with no known affiliation – placate their patients’ addiction as a replacement to self-harm.

Who are we to argue with that? How on earth are we meant to apply our school rules and policies if these vulnerable young people can legitimately say “But, my therapist says it’s better than self-harming”?

Prescribed? No. Endorsed? Absolutely. Vulnerable young people, albeit closer to upper key stage 4 and older, warmly sit in the belief that consuming their vape is better than self-harming. How could anyone advise choosing the latter?

More disturbingly still, one teacher described the moment a social worker insinuated that not allowing a child’s vape in school was tantamount to causing trauma by denying their medically endorsed coping strategy.

Do we really find ourselves in a place whereby we must allow these challenges to the law, and what will eventually become law, in order to prevent harm? We must not, not least because vaping is being promoted as better than cigarettes and cannabis. All of these things are illegal.

Sadly, though I’m sure we are all disgusted by this, few educators I’ve spoken to are entirely surprised.  We know and value the hard work and dedication of ethically just and morally sound therapists, social workers and service providers. We also know some see us and our policies as the bad guys of the mental health story.

In this time of ‘broken social contract’, we need parents and carers on side more than ever. We need them to support our policies (which, let’s not forget, mirror the law) and recognise that the lesser of two evils is still evil. And we need to be united in our safeguarding purpose.

To that end, we need support from law-makers to make the case that the idea of vapes as an anti-anxiety cure for our most vulnerable students is a fever dream. All those working with young people should be guided to speak in one voice on this: Vapes are wolves in strawberry and shortbread-scented clothing.

We will be steadfast in our resolve to educate about the harms of all addictive substances. We need our caring colleagues to be just as steadfast in their guidance: vaping is not a treatment.

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