A London University study suggests that older children sharing their knowledge and experience is one of the most effective ways of reaching primary school children, while the importance of early education is stressed in a report by the Trust for the Study of Adolescence. It showed that many pupils received their first lessons on the dangers of drugs after they had already been offered, or tried, an illegal drug.
To address these issues, John Bennet, Coventry's health education co-ordinator, and the Belgrade Theatre's education department, sketched out an ambitious cascade project, whereby GCSE students, in seven of the city's secondary schools, would work with the Belgrade's professional actors to devise a performance (dance, drama or film) which they would take into their feeder schools for presentation to top primary pupils.
The outline plan attracted Pounds 54,000 from the DfEE's GEST budget. By last July, a team of four actors and director had been appointed, with Tag McEntaggart from the Belgrade to co-ordinate the logistics of working in 37 schools.
In October the team presented a demonstration performance and workshop activities to groups of secondary students, selected according to how best the work could be fitted into the schools' timetables: in GCSE drama or media studies or PSE, while one group, unable to find a timetable slot, volunteered to work on the project after school hours.
By early November, at Lyng Hall Secondary School, Andrew Limb's Year 10 drama class was embarking on the project in their very first term of the GCSE course. Most had had little experience of drama; now they had six weeks to create and polish a production.
This was the Belgrade's second visit to the school so they had already covered the groundwork of establishing knowledge about drugs, and identifying a theme for their production: the pressures from your peers to experiment with drugs, including tobacco and alcohol, and how difficult it is to "just say No".
Working on improvised scenes, they looked raw, but after a while, something was beginning to clarify as the professionals got them to project the dialogue more clearly and to focus more sharply on the theme.
Darren, at first loud in his complaints about missing break, was thoroughly engaged by now. "I think it's good. Drugs is a big problem and we have to show them that if you take drugs you'll hurt yourself." He recounts situations where friends have put pressure on each other to "smoke dope", and Michelle adds, "I started smoking cigarettes at the age of 10. I wish I hadn't but friends got me into it." Four weeks, and 12 hours of drama lessons later, the students were doing a final run-through before their audience arrived in the hall at Courthouse Lane primary school.
The play had developed almost out of recognition. The first tentative scenario was now one of a series of snapshot episodes on the effects of smoking, based on a gameshow format, which Andrew Limb confirmed had been the students' own idea. Fagash Lil is shown to be a losing contestant in the game of Life: as a teenager, giving in to peer pressure to try smoking, becoming a heavy smoker and failing in a sports contest because she is out of breath, being unpopular at parties because she puffs smoke in people's faces, and finally losing her job because she coughs over a customer's food.
By contrast, Andy Athletic sails through these trials and when pushed by his friends to "have a fag", accepts, and contemptuously treads it into the ground.
Though performances still needed some polishing, particularly on voice projection, the young audience were engrossed, and later worked with equal concentration on information quizzes with the older students and Belgrade actors.
Commented Julie Rubidge, deputy head of Courthouse Lane and Year 6 teacher: "One of the best aspects of this project is the social side, working with older children. The fact that they are Year 10 students gives them immediate status in the eyes of the younger ones, who hear many 'horror stories' about secondary school and are often nervous of going there. This helps redress the balance and I'm sure they'll remember it."
Co-ordinator Tag McEntaggart said drugs awareness had differed considerably from school to school, at both age levels, and that more of the aims had been achieved in some schools than others. But she felt airing the subject in "a cool, safe way" had been valuable to both age groups, and working together had been the project's greatest strength.
"For the young children there's pride that Year 10 students have taken the trouble to prepare something specially for them, which gives it instant importance, while the older children have gained a sense of responsibility for guiding and helping the younger ones."
The project is evaluated next term and a report and teachers' resource pack will be launched at a conference for health workers in March. For details contact: John Bennet, health education co-ordinator, Elm Bank Teachers' Centre, Mile Lane, Coventry.