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Bid to target drug use

Colleges are to join the front line in the fight against drugs, reflecting the growing recognition that young people aged 16 to 24 are in the group most at risk of substance misuse, whether it be drugs or alcohol.

A significant percentage of the FE student population comes from this group - yet there is no statutory requirement on colleges to deliver drugs education and college staff are said to lack the confidence to do much about it.

Unlike schools, which do have such a duty, colleges are under no obligation to tackle the issues raised by substance misuse at policy level or in lectures.

From next month, the Scottish Further Education Unit is to embark on the first of a series of workshops, funded by the Scottish Funding Council, and in collaboration with Strada (Scottish Training on Drugs and Alcohol), to address the issue in two ways.

The first workshop, "Colleges and Drugs - impact and responses", is aimed at decision-makers, course leaders and middle and senior management in colleges. The second one, "Substance misuse - education and awareness", is targeted mainly at those, such as course tutors and student support staff, who are most likely to come into contact on a day to day basis with the problems associated with substance misuse.

Iain Guthrie, the SFEU's wider access adviser, who formerly co-ordinated the work of Dumfries and Galloway's alcohol and drug action team, focusing on training and employability, is hoping to draw up a set of guidelines on substance misuse that can be used by all Scotland's colleges.

With figures released last week showing that the number of children under the age of 16 receiving treatment for drug misuse in Scotland has more than trebled in the past 10 years, this is clearly a problem on the increase. As colleges take in increasing numbers of under-16s from schools, usually for vocational education, colleges are now in loco parentis for this group and have had to adapt their management to include child protection responsibilities.

However, Mr Guthrie sets the issue in a slightly different context - that colleges are places of learning, and students will be able to learn better if they are not misusing alcohol or drugs. Colleges that are able to tackle the needs of learners who have drug or alcohol problems may, as well as improving the students' quality of life and fulfilling access and inclusion priorities, also increase their own ability to meet targets for recruitment, retention and achievement.

The question facing colleges is how to engage students in this issue when there is limited curriculum time and students are reluctant to engage in anything resembling "school" drug education. The answer, Mr Guthrie says, is to use more imaginative approaches. He believes a harm reduction approach is more effective than, for instance, talks from former addicts warning young people not to do what they did.

"My personal view is that anything seen in any curriculum in the secondary or tertiary sector that is prescribed and does not leave an opportunity for people to explore for themselves will be less effective," he says.

College staff lack training and confidence to deliver drug education. There is also the question of whether or not they should intervene if they suspect substance misuse in a student. Staff, and students, also need guidance on the legal status of cannabis, now that it has been reclassified.

It is a "myth" that the drug has been legalised, Mr Guthrie says. There is also the issue of personal safety, given that substance misuse and mental health problems can often be linked.

Mr Guthrie added: "It is also important that colleges focus on enhancing skills and exploring attitudes rather than simply providing knowledge and developing policies."

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