Truants are more than five times as likely to take drugs than other schoolchildren, according to research published today.
The survey found that 35% of pupils who had ever played truant admitted they had taken drugs in the last month, compared with just 6% who had not skipped school.
The study of 10,000 schoolchildren aged 11 to 15 also found that truants were far more likely to regularly drink alcohol and smoke.
The Smoking, Drinking and Drug Misuse Among Young People in England in 2002 survey found that 35% of 11 to 15-year-olds who had played truant admitted to smoking regularly – at least one cigarette a week – seven times the rate among those who had never skipped school.
More than half of truants (53%) admitted to underage drinking in the previous week, compared with 18% of non-truants.
The researchers said similar patterns of substance misuse were found in children excluded from school. But they urged caution over the results because the data was self-reported.
The research, commissioned by the Department of Health, was carried out in 321 English schools during the autumn term last year.
The study also found that poorer pupils, who received free school meals, were more likely to be regular smokers than those who paid for their dinners – 14% compared with 10%.
They were also more likely to have taken drugs in the last month – 13% compared with 11%.
But pupils from low income households were less likely to have drunk alcohol in the last week – 22% compared with 25%.
Dan Kushlick, director of the Transform drugs policy institute, said the results came as no surprise.
He said: “There’s a large body of research confirming a link between deprivation and other forms of social exclusion and drug misuse in children.”
But Mr Kushlick cautioned against overreacting to the findings. “What we need to assess is how problematic children’s drug use is. If they’re smoking a bit of dope it’s not a major problem – unless they come into contact with the criminal justice system.
“We need to identify those who are likely to go on to misuse harder drugs and equip them with the emotional and psychological strength to realise what they’re doing to their minds and bodies, as well as trying to improve the environment they live in.”
The survey also revealed that while the number of children taking drugs fell last year by 2%, boys were still more likely to try illegal substances than girls.
The number of 11 to 15-year-olds taking drugs decreased from 20% in 2001 to 18% in 2002.
The number of children who had ever taken drugs also went down from 29% to 26%, according to the statistics from the National Centre for Social Research and the National Foundation for Educational Research.
While the number of girls who said they had taken drugs in the last month fell from 11% to 9%, for boys the figures remained unchanged at 12%. And 20% of boys reported using drugs in 2002.
The numbers of young drug-users increased sharply with age – while just 3% of 11-year-olds had taken drugs in the last month, 22% of 15-year-olds had.
Almost half – 45% – of 15-year-olds had taken drugs at some point.
The most commonly used drug taken by pupils in the last year was cannabis at 13%, while 4% had used class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
The study showed that the proportion of young smokers had remained at 10% for the past three years.
Older children were much more likely to smoke than younger ones, with 23% of 15-year-olds being regular smokers, compared with 1% of 11-year-olds.
From 13 upwards girls were more likely to smoke than boys, with 11% of girls regularly smoking compared to 9% of boys.
But boys tended to smoke more, consuming an average of 52 cigarettes a week compared with 48 for girls.
Unsurprisingly, older children also drank far more than younger ones. Almost half (47%) of 15-year-olds had had a drink in the last week, compared to just 5% of 11-year-olds.
The most common alcoholic drinks consumed by youngsters were beer, lager and cider at 71%.
But the number of young people drinking alcopops in the last week was shown have risen from 55% in 1996 to 68% in 2002.