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Dose of realism in drugs education

In a new attempt to tackle the problem of narcotic abuse, BBC Scotland is to broadcast a series persuading young children to think for themselves. Raymond Ross reports.

In what it describes as its "response to real social concerns about drug and alcohol abuse" BBC Education has just launched ID: Learning to be You, a three-year series of television programmes aimed at raising self-esteem in the classroom.

r-indent = Working closely with the Health Education Board for Scotland, BBC Scotland has played a key role in the series which is tackling drugs education in an innovative, if not controversial way.

Discarding the old "just say no" approach for a new motto "stop, think, think again", the two BBC Scotland series are aimed at five to seven-year-olds, and nine to 11-year-olds. They are intended "to arm young people with the facts and information they will need to build their decision-making skills and know how to protect themselves as well as deal with the pressures to experiment with drugs and alcohol," says Frank Flynn, head of BBC schools' commissioning. "Research has shown that the 'just say no' approach doesn't work." This is an argument close to the heart of educational research fellow Noreen Wetton, who says she convinced "the BBC people involved" that drugs education was appropriate for five to seven-year-olds, in spite of initial resistance to the idea.

Wetton, who is 73, is an ex-head teacher and now senior research fellow at the University of Southampton's school of education, co-wrote the resource pack for the younger children, Watch: Ourselves, Me and acted as consultant to the TV programmes.

"In my 50 years' experience in education, I'd say you can't teach under-sevens just to say no. They have to recognise what is going on to come to a decision, " she says.

For Wetton the "just say no" approach is counter-productive, because it does not develop the confidence and decision-making skills necessary to grow up in a drug-using world.

"We have to prepare children to live in a drug-using world in which only some drugs are illegal. There is a whole world of drugs and all have to be treated with respect. In any large primary there could be 20 to 30 pupils using legal drugs. You have to show that some drugs make people's lives better. It has to be put into perspective and that means you have to respect the children. "

Wetton describes her approach as basically "child-centred", but counters accusations of "woolly-minded liberalism" which have been levelled against her, by basing her arguments on hard-nosed research.

"In order to find out what children thought drugs and drug users were, my research used a 'draw and write' series of exercises which teased out what they thought. The research was carried out by classroom teachers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland - 22,600 children took part, 9,000 of them under eight and 900 under five.

"You could see from this that the five-to-six and six-to-seven age groups did know what drugs were in a way that fours-to-fives didn't," she says.

"In both research and teaching you begin with children, not drugs. Discover what they know, don't know, half-know or think they know about drugs. You find out what they know, sort out what's muddled and build on that," says Wetton.

The "stop, think, think again" strategy is also being applied to a lot of other situations in the programmes dealing with issues of friendship, pressure, persuasion, bullying and so on.

"You have to get children to recognise pressure and feelings, like the feeling of being left out or being bullied into doing something they don't want to. If they are unsure of the situation you encourage them to stop, think, think again, and then go and tell someone about it. It's about developing decision-making skills."

Watch: Ourselves, Me goes out on BBC2, Tuesdays 10.30am, repeated Thursdays 9.30am.

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