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Study warns that drugs education is below par

Drugs education is "considerably below best practice" and will not cut the number of young users, a study of 12 secondaries in five authorities has found.

The second annual conference of Scotland Against Drugs heard last week from Niamh Fitzgerald, health promotion training officer with Greater Glasgow NHS Board, that most schools had still not developed a written policy and programmes were poorly monitored and evaluated.

Dr Fitzgerald's study looked at nine north-east and three west of Scotland schools. "I believe that there is no evidence that the issues I have identified are not issues that exist in other areas," she said.

Few of the lessons she observed were interactive and many involved the use of videos and worksheets. She questioned the effectiveness of "scare tactics", particularly videos of real-life stories, because they do not address young people's understanding of drug use and fail to reflect the actual reality of the consequences, particularly of ecstasy.

The use of scare tactics contrasted with the concept of "informed choice" described by many schools as central to their provision. Addressing the issue of harm reduction, she acknowledged that this is a difficult area for teachers who are often wary of parents' reaction.

Many teachers' perceptions were that the advice on harm reduction is conflicting. Dr Fitzgerald said: "When young people make an informed choice to use drugs, teachers have the responsibility to provide information that will reduce or minimise the risks associated with that drug use without condoning it."

A "low priority" was assigned to personal and social education even though there was general agreement among pupils and teachers that drugs education is best delivered by small, dedicated teams of teachers, particularly guidance and PSE staff. According to some pupils, this made "a dramatic difference".

But some local authority representatives challenged Dr Fitzgerald's findings as unrepresentative and "out of date". Her two-year survey was completed at the end of 2002.

One said: "While we respect and value research evidence we are always aware that once findings are published ongoing work has often overtaken the starting point of the research. In many areas there has been a lot of proactive work in drugs education."

Mike McCabe, education director in South Ayrshire, said that success would only come if teachers took account of pupil aspirations and attitudes. "A values approach can help us develop positive ways in which young people can contribute to their community and develop a mindset where drugs are not seen as an attractive option," Mr McCabe said.

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