Counter the drug culture that puts syringes in school

Reva Klein

Reva Klein finds that awareness of drugs among primary pupils does not always extend to knowing what to do about them

In a bright classroom that looks out on to one of the most notorious housing estates in the London borough of Hackney, three-quarters of the pupils say that they have seen syringes scattered around outside. "I've seen one in my neighbour's garden," chirps one girl. Others have seen them lying around the estate, in the park, in the street.

These 10-year-olds at Down Side primary know that the most sinister thing about syringes is not what the nurse does with them. They watch The Bill, EastEnders, the lot, while still at an age when they are eager to please, to do and say the right thing. Most say that if they found a syringe, they would quickly go and tell their mum.

But, says Dudley Craig, "just because kids are aware of drugs doesn't mean they know anything about them". And he knows better than most what children do and don't know. As the drugs education adviser for East London and City Health Promotion, he has been running a three-week programme at Down Side. Last year, he set up the multi-disciplinary team, supported by the Home Office, in response to demands from schools for help. Working in conjunction with the North-East London Drugs Prevention Team, the Metropolitan Police, the youth service and drugs agencies, the team has been delivering programmes in secondary and primary schools in Tower Hamlets and Hackney based on national curriculum guidelines. In the 30 primary schools he has visited so far, he has found half-a-dozen children who have suffered needle-stick injuries from used syringes thrown into their playgrounds.

Last year's White Paper, Tackling Drugs Together, followed by curriculum guidance from the Department for Education and Employment and the introduction of Office for Standards in Education inspection of drugs education and policies, have focused schools' thinking on the subject.

With these changes has come the heightened awareness of teachers and heads that drugs - whether legal ones such as alcohol, tobacco and solvents, or illegal, like cannabis and Ecstasy - are a part of children's worlds. They're not just available from dealers lurking around dark street corners, but are ubiquitous: in advertising, on their favourite programmes, and, most crucially, in the case of tobacco and alcohol, in their homes, consumed by parents. They are as much of an issue in the poshest of independent schools as in inner-city comprehensives.

Dudley Craig and other drug-educators believe that the younger that children are when they acquire the skills and information to decide what to do about drugs, the less likely they are to harm themselves. While the emphasis of drugs education at secondary level is on harm reduction, in the new area of primary school drugs education, the focus is more on empowerment.

The drug education team's work in primaries uses active learning models, small group work, feedback sessions, role plays and scenarios with key stage 2 pupils to introduce the issues. Hour-long sessions spread over three weeks are designed to be lively and informative, fitting in with participative classroom methodology. Dudley Craig's style is young and cool, informal yet direct. His street credibility is important to children who are not nearly as streetwise as they might like to think they are.

One child, asked to draw a picture of drugs that a fictional Cheryl finds in a bag, confidently sketches what looks for all the world like a lavatory brush. When asked by a perplexed Dudley Craig what it is, he says: "It's something that you sniff up your nose."

At 10, children are impressionable. Moreover, they are just a year away from the crucial age, according to a vast body of research, when some start experimenting with legal and illegal drugs. In this context drugs education is, as Colin Chapman, drugs education co-ordinator for Redbridge Education Services, puts it, "a social issue as much as an education issue".

He, like others working in the field, applauds the DFEE's curriculum guidance for schools, Drug Proof, and the priority that is being given to the topic. But whether primary schools will be able to deliver a curriculum for which they have had little training or experience remains to be seen. According to the Professional Association of Teachers, only 15 per cent of primary teachers have had training in drugs education. While GEST (grants for education support and training) money is available to schools for staff training in drugs education for three years, the amount available (between Pounds 200 and Pounds 300, depending on pupil numbers) is not vast and, says Colin Chapman, delivery of training is patchy.

"It could come from a health promotion officer or from the police. But it could also come from someone who says they're an expert with no education background. It's very much a free market for training in what is a fledgling subject. "

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Reva Klein

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