Don't be a dope, talk about it

25th September 2009 at 01:00
Substance misuse is never an easy topic to teach, but one council has hit on the right formula to get the message across

Scenario one: lines of desks with students watching educational DVDs; being talked to; and filling in workbooks.

Scenario two: students working in small groups, chatting freely and then discussing with the teacher different situations involving drugs.

Which is more effective?

Scenario two, according to the community learning and development team at East Dunbartonshire Council, where a new substance misuse curriculum is being implemented, with positive feedback from teachers and students.

Substance misuse is a key part of the health and well-being guidance in A Curriculum for Excellence, as well as fitting in with helping young people become successful learners, responsible citizens, confident individuals and effective contributors. It is becoming increasingly important that schools approach the subject in the best way they can.

Jacki Gallacher is the young person's addiction prevention worker and Fiona Peron is one of the health development officers in East Dunbartonshire. "We knew that some schools were using different methods and approaches to teach about drugs and alcohol, and were coming across different messages," explains Ms Gallacher.

"We wanted consistency, and for methods to be up-to-date. Drug and alcohol education messages need to be updated frequently as local trends, information and legal status change."

With help from drug and alcohol education consultant Niamh Fitzgerald, the team set about discovering the best way forward. "There is lots of research that the most effective way to teach about substance misuse is to use interactive methods," says Ms Gallacher, "and to have discussions, particularly pupil to pupil discussions. We need to challenge attitudes, not just give information. That works well when it is scenario-based, looking at situations which could happen, and positive and negative ways of dealing with them."

The team began with a pilot programme in Boclair Academy. "The school gave us their lesson plans, and we took these into account," says Ms Peron. "We looked at the lesson outcomes for each year group, what they were doing already and the strengths. Then we looked at ways of improving them. The guidance staff were consulted throughout, and their views and advice taken on board. Boclair were open to new suggestions and ideas."

They also looked at what other schools were using. "We noticed that some schools had separate lessons for alcohol, tobacco and for drugs, instead of combining them," says Ms Gallacher. "Research has found that it is more effective to combine them. Often the message is the same and it is unusual that alcohol, tobacco or drugs are used in isolation."

Focus groups enabled them to take on board the students' thoughts and ideas, and what they would like to be included in the curriculum. "They spoke of how they wanted more hands-on work" recalls Ms Peron. "There was a lot of `no more worksheets'."

Each curriculum pack is tailored to the individual school. "We spoke to teachers and took on board their recommendations," says Ms Gallacher. "We gave them a draft of the pack to trial, and organised teacher- training."

With limited use of DVDs and videos, the curriculum uses fun, interactive activities and resources such as smoking-prevention bingo, and drug-facts card games where they match up risks and effects. This allows teachers to pick up what the students have learnt and what they are getting out of it. Students work in groups discussing issues, and converse freely while challenging each others' attitudes and views.

"The curriculum is adapted for each year group to make it age-appropriate, beginning with the first years and looking at what a drug is (including legalillegalmedicines) and the benefits and harms," says Ms Peron.

"We look at school drug policy, and the implications of drug use, even years later in their life," says Ms Gallacher. "Many don't realise that even a minor offence will show on their record with nothing to indicate the crime's seriousness. We highlight the fact that if they club their money together to buy drugs and one person is caught, they could all be done for possession and intent to supply. These are things they don't think about. It is about seeing the ripple effect. A lot of the time, the pupils had not thought about the situations we cover."

Feedback so far has been positive, with students commenting that it is "better than just sitting listening to people". They feel more involved, and find working in small groups less intimidating, more interesting and much more fun.

Steps are now being taken to roll the curriculum out throughout East Dunbartonshire. Ms Gallacher says, "We are at the final stages with Boclair Academy, and are at various stages with Kirkintilloch High, Lenzie Academy, Bishopbriggs Academy, and Turnbull High. We hope to begin work in the other schools next year and monitor the curriculum annually."

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