Bad choices of the sensible teenager

15th April 2005 at 01:00
The tale of a teenager's experience with drugs is being used to teach primary and secondary pupils about the risks, Su Clark reports

Rachel Miller died after being knocked down by a car, but it wasn't the driver that killed her. In a powerful interactive resource launched last week by West Lothian, it soon becomes clear that the choices made by the 15-year-old were to blame for her demise.

Rachel Miller's Diary is a drugs education CD-Rom for 11- to 14-year-olds. At its heart is a 40-minute narrative about the supposedly sensible teenager, which can be viewed in segments. Beginning with a news report on her death, the story uses video clips made by Rachel in the days leading up to her death, interspersed with photographs, testimonials by her tearful parents and friends and comments from teachers, the police and health care professionals, all well played by volunteers rather than professional actors.

Facts on drugs are blended with emotional reminiscences about Rachel and her life, making the impact of drugs real for those watching. It also puts alcohol and tobacco firmly on the anti-drugs agenda.

"Every year 1,200 young people are taken to accident and emergency units at Scottish hospitals because of the effects of alcohol, but this is only the tip of the iceberg," says Alan Wait, managing director of Learning Curve Software, one of the partners behind the resource. "Forty-six per cent of 15-year-olds and 17 per cent of 13-year olds drink regularly."

The statistics in West Lothian are similar to national figures on alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs. The most recent Salsus survey on drug use in Scotland found that 7 per cent of 13-year-olds and 19 per cent of 15-year-olds had tried drugs in the previous month. Cannabis is the most common illegal drug, with similar numbers of young people admitting they had smoked it in the previous month. However, drinking remains the most common drug among the young, with worrying repercussions for society.

Drinking is responsible for one in 30 deaths in Scotland, one in five fatalities on the road and one in three pedestrian deaths. But drug agencies are also concerned that drinking and smoking can be the first step towards illegal drugs. "They can be a starting point," says Frank Monaghan, the education officer at West Lothian, which recently updated its schools substance policy.

"Drinking and tobacco are the greater problem because, being legal, they are more easily accessible.

"We wanted to highlight the dangers of all drugs."

It is never quite clear what Rachel takes on the evening of her death. She had been drinking and there were traces of cannabis in her blood, but we also find out that she had been trying to buy Ecstasy.

"We purposely left it ambiguous," says Mr Wait. "It is open for discussion.

"One pupil told me that depression killed her and that's an interesting talking point, because it is obvious from her video entries that she is unhappy and not getting on with her parents."

Wrapped around the narrative are extensive interactive features that give pupils opportunities to read about drugs and their harmful effects, explore other issues relating to the use of drugs and test their knowledge by answering a quiz.

In the Casebook, pupils can explore the role drugs play in Rachel's life and why young people sometimes experiment with them. They are also encouraged to consider society's conflicting views about drug taking, peer pressure and media influences.

There are two versions of the CD-Rom, which has been developed in partnership by the local authority, Aberdeen University and Learning Curve Software, a company founded by former teachers to provide resources to support the Scottish curriculum. The primary school program looks only at alcohol, tobacco and cannabis, while the secondary school program's broader remit includes all illegal substances, including solvents, which are the biggest killer of first-time users.

The software is currently being distributed free to West Lothian's 66 primary and 12 secondary schools and will be supported by training for teachers.

The authority is also hoping to cascade training down to parents. "We are talking with school boards to see how we can draw parents into the debate," says Mr Monaghan. "We'd like schools to run parents' evenings so that we could talk to parents about it."

Rachel Miller's Diary is just one in a portfolio of interactive resources that the local authority has developed with Aberdeen University and Learning Curve Software. Last year it launched Room2B, aimed at children in care, and Red Herring, a modern languages resource which has since been bought by the Scottish Executive and distributed to all schools. The partnership has already begun working on its next project, a resource focusing on protective behaviour.

Rachel Miller's Diary is currently available only to schools in West Lothian, but the council is looking to sell it to other authorities. Single licence pound;50, rising to pound;500 for

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