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Battle against the blight

An understanding of substance abuse is vital for those who teach the young, but resources are scarce. Martin Whittaker reports on a critical shortfall that needs to be bridged.

Further education tutor Sue Black finds that her job brings her into increasing contact with drugs issues. She trains people in inner-city Birmingham who want to go into play work.

"You need to be aware of the children's use of drugs because it's rife at the moment," she says. "You need to know what to look for. I work in areas where there's a lot of drug-taking - in after-school clubs and youth centres where the youngsters have had drugs offered to them at the school gates."

To get to know her enemy better, Sue took a training course in drugs awareness offered by her employer, Josiah Mason college in Birmingham.

The college offers an introductory level 1 Certificate in Drug Awareness as well as a more in-depth level 2 course, Drug Awareness Studies and their Applications.

The qualifications were developed by a major independent training provider, the awarding body NCFE, in partnership with the Wigan Drug Action Team.

The courses look at why people use drugs, how to recognise signs of substance abuse and how to communicate with young people about drugs.

Optional elements also deal with alcohol and solvent abuse.

Sue, 47, is pleased with the training she received. "I had some basic knowledge, but the course went into a lot of detail without being boring," she says. "It has helped me to understand the issues - and that if someone is behaving in an unusual way, they might be on something."

Course tutor Anna Taylor says the qualification has attracted a wide range of people, including police officers, parents and those interested in working with young people who have drugs habits. There are also a number of teachers involved.

"People on the course tend to have an interest in what to look for," says Ms Taylor. "They develop the confidence to recognise that, for example, these are the legal issues, these are the practical issues.

"They learn not to be so scared about drug use, and that just because someone has taken something once doesn't mean they are going to take it for the rest of their lives."

But shouldn't those at the chalkface already be well up on the dangers of drug abuse?

"The teachers who come on the course are those who feel they haven't got that level of confidence or knowledge," says Ms Taylor. "I really wouldn't like to comment on why that should be, but the more teachers have come on the course, the more they have told colleagues."

Certainly, the Government has recognised that teachers have a part to play in the war on drugs - and not only those who specialise in personal, social and health education.

Guidance on drug awareness for further education issued last March says that some colleges have trained staff to deliver drugs education, but the task often falls to tutors whose areas of expertise lie elsewhere.

The guidance says that staff should focus on helping students to learn, but they should know where to find credible drug information and help students to access it. It adds: "Some specific training may be needed to enable staff to feel confident in this role..."

Department for Education and Skills guidelines for schools are more straightforward - these say that all staff should now receive drug awareness training. But how?

A DfES spokeswoman said there is no dedicated extra funding for such provision. The cost of this training is expected to come out of school budgets. The DfES also points to continuing professional development, which includes drugs education for those who teach PSHE. It also says only 3,000 teachers a year take part in the scheme.

The organisation DrugScope says that qualified teachers are desperately in need of drugs awareness training and that the critical shortfall in provision is due to the Government's lack of financial commitment.

It also complains that not only is no extra cash available for such training, but funds have, in effect, been cut. Money that was once ring-fenced for training teachers in these issues has now been devolved to schools, many of which may feel that they have more urgent priorities than drugs education for staff.

The Drug Education Forum, a cross-sector collaboration of national organisations, is now conducting a survey on whether the loss of those ring-fenced funds is having a detrimental effect on teachers' drugs awareness training.

DrugScope is also critical that insufficient time and effort is devoted to this issue on initial teacher-training courses.

Dr Jenny McWhirter, the charity's head of education and prevention, cites the example of a PGCE course in which the issue took up just one hour in the year-long course.

But wouldn't teachers be right to think that drug abuse is one of society's ills, and that it is not really their job to deal with it. Should this not be a task for specially trained professionals?

Dr McWhirter believes that education has to be part of the equation in the war on drugs.

"Some teachers may think, 'This isn't to do with me - I'm a maths teacher.'

But teachers teach children, not just subjects. Anybody interested in young people should be thinking about these issues."

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