Secondary schools are resorting to random searches, banning children from toilet blocks and handing out fixed-term exclusions to crack down on vaping.
The Department for Health and Social Care requested this week that schools ensure their policies on vaping are “robust” and sanctions to pupils are “proportionate”.
Data published by NHS Digital earlier this month shows the proportion of 11 to 15-year-olds classed as current e-cigarette users increased to 9 per cent in 2021, up from 6 per cent in 2018.
While the proportion of smokers in the same age group has dropped to 3 per cent, the research also suggests that one in five 15-year-old girls are vapers.
Headteachers say the number of children vaping at school has increased since premises reopened after Covid.
It is illegal in the UK to sell such products to under-18s. The long-term health effects of vaping are also relatively unknown.
Schools take hard-line approach
At All Saints Catholic College in Kensington, west London, pupils caught vaping on the premises or in uniform are given fixed-term exclusions.
Paul Walton, the school’s new deputy head, says it was routine at his previous school to confiscate e-cigarettes from teenagers.
The issue, according to him, is a school’s policy not being “tough enough” and a perception that vaping “isn’t that serious”.
In the past academic year, All Saints suspended 18 pupils for vaping, although the number declined in the spring and summer terms.
“We believe this is down to the strong stance we have taken as a school and the message students and families have taken from this,” Walton says.
At the Richard Challoner School in New Malden, Surrey, three pupils received two-day fixed term exclusions last year after they were caught vaping.
Sean Maher, the school’s head, says the issue became more acute after children returned from home-learning as they’d lost “an understanding of boundaries and expectations”.
The school’s views have not budged. “We’ve always had a standing rule in our school, if you’re caught with smoking material then you’re going to get a fixed-term exclusion. So, for me, that has to be the same for vaping.”
Random searches and vape monitors
An absence of blanket guidance on how schools should deal with the issue has resulted in varying approaches.
Andrea O’Neill, the head of Alsager School in Stoke-on-Trent, told parents in May the school would “continue to do random searches and if we find banned items [such as vapes], we will issue strong sanctions, such as suspension or alternative provision”.
Government guidance allows authorised school staff to search pupils, even without their consent, where they have “reasonable grounds for suspecting that the pupil may have a prohibited item”. This includes any item banned under school rules.
At one school, where the head wants to remain anonymous, suspensions are saved for the most serious offenders who vape openly in classrooms.
“It’s just unbelievably disrespectful,” they said, adding that it had happened three times in the past school year.
Those who get caught outside the classroom face lesser sanctions, including confiscation. Last year, the number of vapes that ended up in the head’s drawer was “in the dozens”.
Pupils face ban from toilet blocks
At St Edward’s College in Liverpool, students found vaping in the toilets face being banned from using the blocks and instead made to use single-use accessible toilets.
“We are also investigating fitting vape monitors to the pupil toilets to alert the CCTV any time a vape is used,” Stephen Morris, the school’s principal, said in a newsletter to parents in January.
“The CCTV [is then] able to identify which pupil was present therein as they exit the toilet.”
This was part of the schools “pushing back against an outbreak of ‘vaping’” among mostly girls in years 9 to 11.
Nick Potter, a director at alarm specialist The Safety Centre in Lancashire, told Schools Week that the demand from schools has prompted it to look at expanding its range of vape detectors.
“The ones who are ringing are saying they’ve got a massive problem with vaping generally in the toilets and it seems to be on the increase,” he says.
But the model the company currently stocks – Verkada SV11 environmental sensor – retails at more than £1,000. “When you’ve got several lots of toilets where pupils might be smoking, it gets a bit prohibitive in terms of the cost. We’ve sold around ten,” Potter says.
‘Vaping bigger issue than smoking’
The issue isn’t confined to toilet blocks, with several school leaders saying that pupils vape on the way into school.
Maher thinks vaping is now “more of an issue than smoking was or is” because it’s more discreet.
“When people smoke, you can immediately tell and it’s very hard to hide. But if someone’s vaping, it’s harder to spot.”
Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), says the recent surge in the number of pupils vaping could be down to the introduction of more disposable models, such as Elf Bar and Geek Bar.
“There’s been an explosion in sales of novel, disposable vapes that are quite cheap, easy to get hold of and easier to use. Certainly that seem to be where the growth has been,” says Deborah Arnott, the group’s chief executive.
Figures from a YouGov survey for ASH carried out in March this year show that disposable e-cigarettes are now the most used product among young vapers, up from 7 per cent in 2020 to 52 per cent in 2022.
Because they are smaller and produce less vapour, “disposables are easier for kids to hide and use discreetly”, she says.
How problematic is it?
Current understanding of the health impact remains unclear.
Several heads say the relative lack of longitudinal studies makes them worried about potential unknown “dangers” .
E-cigarettes are promoted as a smoking cessation tool by the NHS, which advises they are not risk-free, but carry a small fraction of the risk of cigarettes. There is no current evidence to suggest vaping poses a risk to others.
While schools are duty bound to ban such items, as their sale is prohibited to under-18s, views on whether it disrupts learning also vary.
“It’s not that it’s disruptive, it’s that it undermines the school’s rules,” Walton says.
Ofsted also sees it as a behavioural issue. During a recent inspection of Longfield Academy in Darlington, the inspector noted that school records suggested “ongoing challenging behaviour” across the school site.
“These include vaping, fights between pupils and truancy from lessons,” it said. The school was rated ‘inadequate’.
What does the guidance say?
An email from the Department for Education to heads on Wednesday read: “Vaping is to help people quit smoking and should not be used by people under 18 or non-smokers – particularly as the long-term harms are unknown. Policies should be robust, and sanctions proportionate.”
The Department of Health and Social Care has asked schools to review their policies, paying particular attention to new guidance from ASH.
But its perspective is at odds with schools that have already adopted zero-tolerance policies.
Among other things, the department advises leaders: “Children should not be excluded from school for vaping or smoking, unless it is associated with other disruptive behaviour that justifies this.”
Arnott says sending a child home won’t necessarily stop them vaping. “The other risk is if you demonise something, you actually glamourise it as well.”
The Department for Education did not respond to a request for comment.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are clear that vaping should only be used to help people quit smoking – vapes should not be used by children, young people or non-smokers.”