Headmasters and social workers fear the growing number of dropouts from junior secondary schools could rise further after drug tests are introduced in schools. The numbers are also fuelled by the schools' ways of dealing with problem pupils, while alternatives are lacking for low achievers who cannot adapt to mainstream schools, they say. The number of dropouts - defined as pupils who fail to show up at school for a prolonged period without a legitimate excuse - has risen 45 per cent from 1,035 in 2005-06 to about 1,500 in the past two school years. This means almost six in 1,000 pupils have stopped attending class. Social worker Lau Wai-lap said it was common for pupils to quit school for up to half a year, despite the law making parents responsible for seeing that all children under 15 went to school. Others would drop out for as long as two years before going back to school, where teachers had difficulty helping them catch up, said Mr Lau, a member of the Neighbourhood Advice-Action Council, a group that works with troubled youngsters. Mr Lau said practical vocational schools that once dealt with problem learners had been transformed into mainstream schools since 2002 and 2003, and there was a need for new institutions that focused on vocational training. The head of the Cheer Lutheran Centre, Hezon Tang Kwok-hei, said it was hard for teachers dealing with the increased workload from education reforms to support pupils at risk. Some pupils with behaviour problems were left unattended in special rooms, resulting in them losing interest in schooling, he said. Increased competition for a falling number of pupils might further prompt some schools to marginalise problem children. 'As the number of students in Hong Kong drops, it becomes more important for schools to maintain a good reputation,' he said. Association of Heads of Secondary Schools vice-chairman Ruth Lee Shek Yuk-yu said problem pupils could be separated but it was done with the aim of helping them in smaller groups. Additional staff taught such groups, she said. If the voluntary drug tests, to be tried in Tai Po in the next school year, boosted dropout numbers, schools would need more resources, Mrs Lee said. 'It is logical for one to expect drug tests could lift dropout numbers,' she said. 'But non-attendance is an indicator that students need help and more resources should go to them.' Since 2006, schools have been required to report non-attendance to the Education Bureau on the seventh day of continuous absence. The principal of Christian Zheng Sheng College, a rehabilitation school for young drug addicts, said children were not fit to go to school after taking drugs, which was the reason many dropped out. Alman Chan Siu-cheuk said the tests could further lift dropout numbers. 'Will drug-taking students go to school to get caught?' he asked. Subsidised Secondary School Council committee member Stephen Hui Chin-yim said special classes for problem pupils could be the policy of individual schools and it was hard to say if it was widespread. But he said schools lacked resources to deal with such pupils, including dropouts. 'If a student stops going to classes for a while, he may find it hard to pick up academically after returning ... but it is hard for teachers to tend to each of these individuals.' A bureau spokeswoman said schools reported non-attendance cases sooner after the rules were tightened in 2006, which was one factor in the rising dropout number. After receiving reports, the bureau's non-attendance cases team provided an intervention service, including counselling, to the pupils, she said. Warning letters and attendance orders would be sent to parents if pupils did not resume school. About 70 per cent of dropouts in the past two years had returned to school, the spokeswoman said. Chinese University department of social work assistant lecturer Lau Yuk-king said bureau staff did not offer direct counselling but gave parents a list of social workers they could contact. Unless teachers were given less administrative work, an increase in social workers would not deal with the dropout problem, she said.