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How to keep them off the hard stuff;Subject of the week;Personal, social, and health education

Drugs education needs to start at primary school -and should include information about alcohol and tobacco as well as illegal substances, writes Ruth Joyce

If schools are to help children and young people prepare for the challenges they meet in life and to make healthy choices about their behaviour, it's crucial to embed drugs programmes in personal, social and health education, where teaching and learning styles are more interactive than in many other curriculum areas.

The PSHE Advisory Group, which is making submissions to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's national curriculum review, is playing a key role in ensuring that drugs education has a place in the curriculum beyond the existing science Order, which simply offers pupils aged five to 16 a knowledge base on substances.

The ultimate aim of drugs education is to equip pupils with a range of skills that will enable them to recognise and be in control of any drug-related situation. Many of the skills they need - the ability to make decisions, solve problems, communicate effectively and explore and express emotions - are generic to other health topics, from what we eat to whether we smoke and how we behave in relationships.

More and more young people are starting to use alcohol, tobacco and illegal substances. In response to this, in May 1995 the then government asked schools to deliver effective drugs education programmes.

Research indicates that this must start early if it is to be of any real benefit, and should incorporate information about alcohol, tobacco, medicine, solvents and illegal drugs. The school atmosphere must be supportive, the programme should be delivered by competent and confident teachers as part of PSHE, and must meet the varying needs of individual young people while having the support of parents and community. It should develop knowledge and understanding as well as social skills.

It is important for all school managers to draw up a drugs policy which pinpoints the ways their drugs education programmes will be developed and clarifies their management of drug-related incidents at school. A named drug co-ordinator is helpful. So, too, is the designation of a school governor with specific responsibilities in this area. Resources for staff training and development, as well as for curriculum delivery, will help embed drugs education into a sustainable programme.

There is evidence that children as young as five know about drugs from many sources: some live in drug-misusing families and most watch television and have access to newsprint. Yet OFSTED has found that, while the number of schools developing drug policies throughout the United Kingdom is growing, primaries do not always see drugs as an issue for them. This is something they should reconsider.

The issue of drugs, what we teach about them and how we teach it needs sensitivity. Skilled, competent and confident teachers are crucial in delivering an effective curriculum. Support via the Standards Fund monies is available, resources in the community to underpin the role of teachers are growing and advice and support at national level is developing under Government Drugs Strategy. SCODA (the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse) has developed three support documents, free to schools via PROLOG (0845 602260): Right Choice - a guide to choosing drug education resources; The Right Approach - quality standards in drug education; and The Right Responses - managing and making policy for drug-related incidents in schools.

Before you start off any classroom discussion on drugs, it is vital to find out what pupils already know and negotiate on lesson content. Don't be too fearful if they know more than you. Although they'll have already gleaned a certain amount of knowledge, not all of it will be correct. You don't need to become an expert before you begin. There is plenty of reliable reference material to consult when necessary.

The teacher's main role is to encourage pupils to make careful and informed choices, teach them to understand both the laws and the risks around drug use, try to ensure that they take increasing responsibility for themselves and that they understand the consequences of their behaviour.

These aims are not new, and do not add a great deal to what most PSHE teachers do day in, day out. The topic of drugs may be a new one to many, but that does not mean teachers can't provide a well-planned and successful course that complements the national response to tackling drugs.

Ruth Joyce is head of education prevention at the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse, and co-chair of the National Advisory Expert Group on PSHE

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