The government’s school behavior adviser has called on school leaders to crack down on vaping among pupils, calling it a ‘huge health hazard’ and a ‘huge distraction’ as more children use the devices , including some in primary school age.
Tom Bennett said vaping is now as big a problem in schools as cigarettes once were, with children becoming “addicted to the practice and the chemicals involved”.
He called on school leaders to confiscate prohibited items, set clear penalties and abide by them without any exceptions.
School leaders in England have described pupils being caught vaping in toilet blocks, and some being lured into selling vapes in exchange for free vapes.
Other children are afraid to go to the bathroom because of ongoing illicit vaping, and learning is disrupted as students sneak out for a quick vape between lessons, causing them to be delayed in class.
Officials say it is mainly older high school children who vape, although some have heard from primary school colleagues about incidents involving younger children.
In Blackpool, the Conservative Councilor Andrew Stanfield recently told a full council meeting that vaping was “widespread” in city schools and estimated that 75% of students vaped. It is illegal in the UK to sell vaping products to anyone under the age of 18.
In Devon, Amy Grashoff, the principal of Newton Abbot College, has seen a marked increase in the number of students vaping. She is also aware of cases of children selling vapes on behalf of older children or family members, who may then find themselves sued for debt.
The school has put in place measures to address the problem, including searches using metal detectors, CCTV, limiting the number of students in the toilets at a time and maintaining the exterior doors of the blocks open toilets to reduce anti-social behaviour.
“You may find yourself spending an awful lot of time dealing with inappropriate behavior in the bathroom when you should be in class watching the 95% of our students enthusiastically engage in their learning,” said Grashoff, who is concerned about the implications for children’s health. .
Glyn Potts, the principal of Newman RC College in Oldham, said his school had a spate of vaping incidents around three years ago but the introduction of CCTV had reduced the problem. Before Covid, it was a weekly event, he said; last year there were only eight or nine incidents involving vapes.
“They are easy to use, hide and store. We’ve seen vapes where there’s a vape on one end and a USB on the other, clearly aimed at the student market,” Potts said. He said there was also a competitive gaming element to vaping that appealed to young people, with some trying to create elaborate smoke rings.
Sean Maher, headmaster of Richard Challoner School in New Malden, Surrey, said a pupil caught vaping on the premises would get an automatic two-day ban.
Ben Davis, principal of St Ambrose Barlow RC High School in Swinton, Manchester, said he tried to take a health-friendly approach.
“It’s quite stealthy. It’s possible to do it in a crowded hallway and nobody notices,” he said. He was aware of cases where adults outside of school gave free vapes to children to cure them.
Bennett told the Guardian: “Vaping is now as big an issue in schools as cigarettes were. They moved in and partially replaced that.
“Some of it is symbolic, it’s a signal of what they believe to be maturity, maybe even rebellion, and as such it presents the same dilemmas.
“Children become addicted to both the practice and the chemicals involved. It is a huge health hazard and a huge distraction for children in schools when they should be socializing, learning and growing.
He said schools should explain to students why vaping is bad for them and make them aware that it is prohibited and the consequences for students who vape on school premises.
“It is not sullen piety. Schools must be spaces where children are protected from narcotics of all forms, and it is necessary to be strict with these processes to ensure that children are taken care of,” he said.
“They are vulnerable to the predatory influences of the media on premature adultification, to companies that want to sell addictive products to a young market, and to their own immaturity. That’s why schools need to set these boundaries – because they care.
Recent research by NHS Digital found that more than one in five 15-year-old girls (21%) used e-cigarettes in 2021, more than double the proportion recorded in 2018 (10%). The proportion of girls who vape is seven points higher than the proportion of boys of the same age.