No quick fix

The Government seems to be returning to shock tactics in its war on drugs. But two ex-addicts are taking a quite different message into schools: don't be scared, be sussed. Wendy Wallace met them

Paul McCabe and Spencer Hudson look out of place in the reception area of Cheney school in Oxford, pacing up and down exuding nervous energy. Too old to be students, too young to be parents... and would teachers wear baseball caps indoors? In fact, Paul and Spencer are visiting speakers; their drug education charity Energy and Vision is winning respect from teachers and - crucially - students. With British teenagers more likely than any other Europeans to experiment with drugs, according to a recent survey, the onus is on schools to make drug education work. But how to do it effectively remains the subject of furious debate.

Last week the Department for Education and Skills released a video made by Mick and Pauline Holcroft, whose 21-year-old daughter Rachel Whitear died of a heroin overdose earlier this year. The video includes the controversial image of Rachel lying dead on her bedsit floor with a syringe still stuck in her arm. Critics says the video, to be made available to every school in the country, marks a return to the discredited scare tactics of the "Just say no" poster campaign of the 1980s.

Paul McCabe and Spencer Hudson offer a new contribution in the field of drug education, telling of their personal experience alongside more conventional advice from health workers, police and the youth service.

Year 10 pupils trickle into the library at Cheney. A few look like adults, while others could pass for Year 6s; the school's sober uniform has been imaginatively compromised by some of the girls. Spencer, 26, in black trousers and short-sleeved black shirt, with gelled hair and a briefcase full of placebo drugs, stands in front of them. "I'm not here to start doing your heads in, telling you what to do," he begins. "Thirteen years old I was, when I first tried cannabis."

What follows is a potted version of his life story: his early attempts to roll spliffs - "Mine looked like a vacuum cleaner bag gone wrong"; his attempts to conceal his drug use from his mother - "I'm totally out of my face thinking 'what am I going to do?' I end up puking out of my bedroom window, all over the French windows and she's sitting in the dining room. So she tells me to clear it up. And I get a china mug of water and throw it at the window. But the handle comes off and the mug goes straight through the window. So she's chasing me round the garden with a plastic broomstick, beating me. But it doesn't hurt and I can't stop laughing. So then she locks me out of the house."

So far, so relatively unexceptional. But every pair of eyes in the room is on him, as he moves further through the story, into the break-up of his parents' marriage - "I basically didn't cope very well"; his exclusion from school for assaulting a deputy head - "I pushed him a bit too hard and he fell over on the floor"; and his expanding repertoire of substances - "I was trying LSD, speed, cocaine occasionally. There was no one there to ever tell me what I was doing was wrong." Excluded from several schools in Lincolnshire and with his family disintegrated, Spencer Hudson arrived in Oxford alone and without money at the age of 16 - a year older than most of his audience in this school; he fell in with a crowd of petty criminals and drug-users, and became addicted to heroin. "I woke up one morning feeling terrible, like I had the flu. I did another line on the tinfoil and I felt OK. I realised I was dependent," he says.

Turning to crime to fund his habit, he was soon facing a custodial sentence. He tells the pupils how, behind bars, he fantasised about becoming someone in the underworld. "I thought, 'When I get out of jail I'm going to run things in Oxford'. You feel like a big man once you've been in prison and you start getting more work, as in criminal work, because people trust you."

After his release, Spencer was committing up to 10 offences each day, he tells the students, to make pound;200 to buy drugs. "My face was like a skeleton. Your life's shit. It's worthless. I went down so low." By the age of 21, having served two prison sentences, he went into residential rehabilitation at the Lee Community in Oxford, and began to learn to face himself. "I started to understand why drugs made me feel better, that I'd been putting all my energy into running away from what was my situation at that time." Some of his peers from the centre are now dead, he says. Some have become involved in drugs again. Some are "sorted". "The younger you are, the easier it is to change."

He and Paul McCabe - they met in the rehabilitation centre - are working flat out on their organisation, talking in schools, prisons and workplaces to spread realistic information about drug use and dependency.

The response of the students here at Cheney is emphatically positive. "It does make you think, what he's been through, just from starting with something that most of my friends have tried," says Daisy, 14. "It would be good if we had more like this. We do drug education every year but it's usually 'Drugs are bad, don't do drugs', rather than explaining what's happening to you."

"It was brilliant," said Joe, 15. "Because it's from experience and it makes you think about the different effects of taking it."

The school sessions are teacher-free zones and when Spencer Hudson asks whether anyone has tried cannabis, a few hands rise hesitantly. Pupils ask him how drugs are smuggled into prison, and how he could have taken heroin in prison. In a second session, which includes looking at placebo drugs and learning about their properties, the students have a stream of questions. Can you crush up ecstasy and snort it? Can you get soluble tablets? Is it a depressant or a stimulant? Is it true that 14 cans of Red Bull have the same effect as one ecstasy tablet? Can you inject it?

None of these students has tried ecstasy, but they are hungry for knowledge. At break, when the buzzer has sounded, some still cluster round Spencer and his briefcase, asking questions. What is Rohypnol prescribed for? What are the negative effects of ecstasy? What are the positive ones? He tells them about selling paracetamol, dog-worming tablets or laxatives in clubs, passing them off as ecstasy, and about the original purpose of Ketamine ("Special K"), a powerful anaesthetic used by vets. "If I said to you, 'Would you take a tablet that gets shoved up a horse's arse?' I mean, would you?"

Becky White, 30, is head of personal and social education at Cheney, a 1,000-pupil upper school for Years 9-13. She has been using Energy and Vision for the past year, convinced by pupils' reactions that the talks (which she has never heard) are useful.

"Paul and Spencer are so charismatic and vibrant - what a great resource for the school. Students really value what they say and what they talk about," she says. "They carry the information with them and they remember it. They will mention their names a year later."

The charity now employs three part-time staff and has four volunteers; the turnover in the last financial year was pound;175,000, boosted by a lottery grant and funding from trusts. Paul and Spencer's commitment to their growing organisation is obvious. One year older than Spencer, Paul had served more time - five sentences - but shared the same interest in business. "Our educations weren't the best," he says. "We didn't concentrate like we should have. Now we're capitalising on our experiences." They are not crusaders, they insist. Just able and willing to tell it like it is to a young audience hungry for truth. "We're not passion-driven ex-users who want to save the world," says Paul. "We have a vision about drug education and we have the energy to do it."

Audrey Ford is a senior teacher and PSE co-ordinator at Oxford school, a 600-pupil Oxford comprehensive for 13 to 19-year-olds. Energy and Vision spent a week in the school last term, working in conjunction with health workers, the police and the youth service, offering sessions for students, staff and parents.

"It had a probably life-changing effect on our students," she says. "It was a very profound message, and an impact tactic, not a shock tactic." She believes the multi-agency, whole-school approach is the optimum. "The whole package is a real strength. Life stories are very gripping but need to be structured with the other institutions of society."

Energy and Vision: Peregrine House, 19 Banbury Road, Kidlington, Oxford OX5 1AQ. Tel: 01865 849 800; www.energyandvision.org RESOURCES

Books

* Protecting Young People: good practice in drug education in schools and the youth service (Department for Education and Skills). The right choice: guidance on selecting drug education materials for schools (DrugScope). The right approach: quality standards in drug education (DrugScope). All available from www.dfes.gov.uk. DrugScope publications are also available from www.drugscope.org.uk or from Marston Book Services on 01235 465500 (ask for direct sales).

* Alcohol: support and guidance for schools (Alcohol Concern and DrugScope). Available from Alcohol Concern on 020 7928 7377 or www. alcoholconcern.org.uk.

* Making the most of visitors: using outside agencies in school drug education (Tacade). Available from Tacade on 0161 745 8925 or www.tacade.com.

* National Healthy School guidance. See www. wiredforhealth.gov.uk or contact the Healthy School Team at Holborn Gate, 7th Floor, 330 High Holborn, London WC1V 7BA. Tel: 020 7430 0850.

Websites

* For information about independently reviewed drug education resources, www.locatenet.org.uk, which is soon to be moving to www.doh.gov.ukdrugs.

* For alcohol education resources, www.portman-group.org.uk.

* The Department for Education and Skills is developing a site with links to a range of resources for PSHE and drugs, alcohol and tobacco education. See www.dfes.gov.uk.

Source: DrugScope, 32-36 Loman Street, London SE1 0EE. Tel: 020 7928 1211. Fax: 020 7928 1771; www.drugscope.org.uk

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