The butt stops here

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Smoking is so prevalent among pupils at her school that Althea Draper started a group to help them quit.

I've only had six today," says one Year 10 boy as I walk along the school corridor with an important visitor. "I've only had two, Miss," says another, further along. "What are they talking about?" asks my visitor, thinking that I'll reply detentions, or order marks. "Cigarettes," I say.

More and more young people, especially girls, are smoking - and they're starting early. The response of most schools, including my own, is to place students caught smoking on a no-smoking site, such as school, in detention. Yet, most of these young people are addicted to nicotine and cannot do without a regular intake. If you ask them about their smoking, most will admit that they wish they'd never started and that they would like to give up. But they lack the willpower, knowledge and support to do it.

I launched a "smoking cessation group" at Thirsk school with an assembly on "five good reasons to give up smoking". I invited students who wanted support and help to join our school nurse, the head of upper school and myself for 20 minutes one lunchtime a week. Thirty upper-school students attended the first meeting.

Throughout these sessions I have used circle time as a support vehicle. In the first two sessions students share personal details - how many they smoke, where they smoke, where they get cigarettes from, when the most difficult times are. This is a real eye-opener: many are given cigarettes by parents, others buy them from the school "pusher", others steal from parents or beg themfrom friends. Some are smoking 20 a day.

Over the next few weeks I ask them to make a public pledge to the group. Every member of the circle promises to cut down - for example, from 20 to 16, or from 10 to six. This pledge is public and recorded.

The mutual support and encouragement in the weeks that follow is always a positive experience. The students develop clever ideas, such as sharing cigarettes, missing out the breaktime cigarette, going into lunch first so that they are kept busy. I offer boiled sweets at break and lots of praise and encouragement to persevere.

Another idea to stop students lighting up was to raise money for the Roy Castle Appeal, selling cakes and washing cars at lunchtime.

Over the weeks we've realised that the hardest part is cutting down from four cigarettes a day. Other problems arise during holidays or mock exams, and students often find they are back to square one. I now realise that the spring and summer terms of Years 7 to 10 are better times to run these sessions.

It is not for the fainthearted. These children let you down; they are, after all, addicted to a powerful drug. And within school such groups create a mixed message. Some staff say I am condoning smoking and even making it legitimate. Few students make it to a successful end.

But along the way the project creates a lot of goodwill and lots of creative, clever ideas on how to give up for when they want to try again. It also brings out genuine support from their peers, which is vital for success.

Althea Draper is deputy head of Thirsk school, North Yorkshire.

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