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The pressure's off for peers

When it comes to sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll - and what the lesson bell means - pupils can help to teach each other, says Esther Read

Think of 11 to 14-year-olds in the context of their peers and we almost inevitably think of "peer pressure" - with all that phrase's negative connotations. So it's heartening to note the outcome of a recent project undertaken by pupils of Morgan Academy and Glebelands Primary, Dundee, where the word "peer" is now more readily associated with education or even support.

The schools' peer education project, "Know The Score", was established with a donation of pound;12,000 from a special fund set aside by the chief constable of Tayside Police. The fund's aim is to assist initiatives targeted at reducing drug abuse.

Know The Score was delivered by Dundee City Council's neighbourhood resources and development department, supported by the police, the education department and, of course, the schools themselves. To everyone's delight, the project has far exceeded its initial objectives.

Morgan Academy and its feeder primary, Glebelands, were targeted on the advice of education adviser Graham Stevenson, because the senior school - in its second-year social education programme - was about to tackle the topic of drug abuse.

The idea was that volunteer peer educators would be trained to take what they had learned to the 62 P7 pupils at Glebelands. Two peer education workers, Carrie Taylor-Burns and Liz Miller, were employed to train the educators. Following their presentation at the school's assembly, 17 youngsters volunteered for the task.

In the words of Susan Ruark, assistant headteacher at Morgan Academy: "The volunteers crossed all abilities and backgrounds, and included both the confident and the timid.

"The project demanded a heavy commitment with six after-school training sessions, lasting from 3.30pm to 5pm, many of which over-ran, such was the youngsters' interest."

Further funding, also from the police, allowed for a final residential weekend (attended by community liaison PC, Mark Duncan) which all concerned saw as a real highlight. The youngsters discovered how to work as a team, despite the fact that many of them might never have associated with each other normally. This was essential for what came next.

The group decided that they really needed to keep parents informed about what was going on and so parents' evenings were organised. These involved sending out invitations, organising a buffet, arranging for a photographer, devising and delivering the presentations, and chairing the evenings. It dawned on them that this work ould form the basis for a Scottish Qualifications Authority award in community involvement, a qualification that it is hoped 16 out of the 17 youngsters will soon achieve.

When it came to educating their peers, the approach the group adopted was very open-ended. For each of their four visits to the primary school, they took along games and activities but also made themselves available to answer any questions. Mary Petrie, assistant head at Glebelands, was impressed.

"They didn't just restrict themselves to the drug issue - although they answered questions on that honestly and informatively. They also demonstrated that it's OK to say 'No' to a whole range of behaviours.

"At first we were worried at the comparatively young age of the peer educators but the P7s definitely related far better to them and sought reassurance from them - particularly on what life would be like at the 'big' school."

Richard Waghorn, one of the peer educators, soon realised that "some of the wee ones had weird ideas about secondary school. They thought they could get up and walk around whenever the bell rang and they were worried by stories of people having their heads pushed down the toilet".

Kevin Dye discovered that "it was good to know that you'd learned something and could pass it on to other people".

Amy Nicholson agrees: "I was a bit surprised that we were trusted to go and teach other children but it was great fun."

The project gave impetus to the "buddy" system which Morgan staff had already been considering as one way of welcoming new pupils to the school. With good relationships already established between the peer educators and the Glebelands cohort, it seemed sensible to ask the same group to look out for the new intake. Two peer educators were assigned to each class and during the first week were responsible for helping to shepherd them around.

Thereafter, each Monday they have gone into their designated class to give out information about school clubs and talk over problems with the younger ones.

As Shazi Issa explains: "The project was about communication as well as drugs. The first years feel more comfortable talking to us than they would to prefects or teachers, and we're able to pass on information about problems to the head of house - with their permission, of course."

So a project that began mainly as a health education initiative has also demonstrated the value of giving youngsters responsibility at an earlier age.

Know The Score was one of 53 educational success stories in Tayside showcased in an exhibition in Dundee's Caird Hall last week

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