'Young people use drugs to have fun, not because there's something deficient about them.' Reva Klein investigates a subject fraught with contradictions.
For a few days last week, Leah Betts' unconscious face and her parents' heart-rending grief engulfed the nation's parents, teachers and young people in fear, anger and sadness. Politicians ranted on to "just say no", leaders were written about how something must be done, teenagers were uncharacteristically subdued and thoughtful, primary schoolchildren were characteristically sanctimonious, swearing that they would never touch drugs, and panic-stricken parents unconvincingly tried to tell each other that it was probably a fluke. Many were flabbergasted at the realisation that there was nothing they could do to stop their children from taking drugs if that was what they wanted to do.
The main issue to come out of this tragedy was this: here was a girl who had two parents who were involved in drugs education. She was better informed than most about drugs and what they do. Far from being a self-destructive no-hoper, Leah was an achieving sixth former who, like the vast majority of Ecstasy users, was out for a bit of fun. The bottom line is that if it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone.
What does this say about drugs education? Is there any point in banging away at it if they're going to go out and experiment anyway? That question could be asked of any kind of health education. Some children will be put off smoking cigarettes by the knowledge of the damage it can cause and others will happily puff away in the belief that it won't happen to them - or that they can stop later. The same is true of other lifestyle issues like safer sex or alcohol. It's very much a matter of individual outlook and response.
If that is the case, it looks like there are an awful lot of young individuals out there who are knowingly, happily taking risks. And they're doing it for the same reason that their parents and teachers drink alcohol: because they want to loosen up and have fun and it's the most socially acceptabledesirable way of getting there within their peer group. The only difference is that one group's high is legal and the other's is not, and those with illegal predilections condemn the boozers who condemn drugs as hypocrites. It is a fair point that is all too often not addressed and discussed in drugs education.
Until now, a lot of the emphasis in drugs education has been on harm reduction through factual information, using the alcohol education model. Introduced in Years 9 or 10, the point of departure of this approach is that young people will already have begun experimenting with illegal drugs and that by demystifying the issues through facts, they will be able to make more informed choices.
While harm minimisation has a place in the drugs education canon, there is growing consensus that it is just one approach. A national survey undertaken by the 27-year- old grand daddy of drugs education organisations in this country TACADE, (The Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drug Education), looked at the effectiveness of different strategies. According to chief executive Jeff Lee, the survey supported the view that "information is not enough. We should be starting this work at an earlier age. For young children, that means that parents should be talking to them at home first, followed by teachers at primary school. Initially, the focus should be on prevention and later, in secondary school, it should move on to intervention. A lot of emphasis has been put on getting kids to use drugs safely. But events last week show that there is no such thing as safe use".
An earlier start to drugs education is being encouraged by the Department for Education and Employment and by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. While not a statutory requirement, drugs education policies of primary and secondary schools are to be inspected by OFSTED and if it doesn't figure in the PSE curriculum, its omission will be noted in the inspection report. There is some GEST money available towards staff training and resources to help schools tackle drugs education in the curriculum, in developing policies and in dealing with incidents. But even if that funding was adequate, which drugs education co-ordinators say it is not, how, in the absence of good primary models until now, are teachers supposed to bring effective drugs education to primary children?
A theatre in education programme currently touring Year 6 and Year 7 classes is one example of an attempt to fill that otherwise yawning gap. South London-based Theatre Adad has been taking Wasted to primary and secondary schools around London all term and will be coming back after Easter. The programme consists of a play followed by workshop and discussion and comes with a teachers pack to help lay the groundwork before and to do follow-up work after the visit. Devleoped in association with the Metropolitan Police's drugs prevention officer, it involves its audience in the story of two girls and a boy out for fun and coolness who fall willing victims to a manipulative dealer a bit older than them. A lot of ground is covered in this simple story, beginning with the boy, new to the school, eager to find friends and ending with his death through accidental overdose. The enormous pressure that can be exerted by the dominant lynchpin of the friendship group is the single most thought-provoking element of the story and one that generates the most discussion. Why does Bullet, the strongest of the three, act in the way that she does? What alternative does Ryan have to taking the first pill? Could they have stopped after their first experience? Why didn't any of them refuse to take the pill and just walk away?
The focus of the programme is not on information but on thinking about and discussing such issues as social pressures, conformity and assertiveness. By allowing young audiences, through forum theatre techniques, to take the role of Ryan, the main character, they are given permission to experiment with the different ways of handling the conflicts of conscienceinstinct and social pressure that they may very well face when they get a bit older. By trying to understand the motivations behind the other characters by being given the chance to challenge the actors in role, they are learning about why people take risks and working towards deciding for themselves whether or not this fits in with their attitudes.
While this sort of work with younger children is just in its beginning stages, teachers should avoid putting a lot of eggs in one methodological basket. Colin Chapman, drugs education co-ordinator for the London borough of Redbridge, says that "the notion of linking high self-esteem and decision-making skills to preventing kids from taking drugs has no evidence to support it. The bottom line is that young people use drugs to have fun, not because there's something deficient in them, although there is a minority with psychological or personal problems who use drugs as a means of alleviating pain. But the idea of peer pressure propelling young people into taking drugs has been shown to be a dubious one by a recent study, quoted in 'Drugs Education and Prevention' showing that it is peer preference, not peer pressure, that is the issue".
If there is any consensus at all on the right approach, it would appear to be one that looked at the issues from a number of different angles. Ultimately, schools have to be pragmatic about the realities of the situation out there and what their role is. As Jeff Lee of Tacade puts it: "Drugs education has to be about choices and decisions and not about moralising. To do this, teachers need the training. If we're really concerned about kids' behaviour, we have to invest in it and it will take a lot of time. At the end of the day, it's not about the substance but the person and how they deal with the offers that are out there."
Resources and contacts:
TACADE has produced Skills for the Primary School Child: The World of Drugs, a resource with 15 practical lesson plans backed up with five training workshops for use with school staff, parents and governors. Alongside fact-based lessons on what is a drug, who uses them and why, alcohol, tobacco and drugs and the law, the pack contains issue-related topics including "staying out of harm's way"; "pressures, influences, situations" and "decisions and choices." The training workshops help teachers to use the pack as well as deal with attitudes, look at how to develop a drugs policy in school and how to talk to children about drugs in informal settings. Price Pounds 35 inc. pp, available from TACADE, 1 Hulme Place, The Crescent, Salford, Greater Manchester, M5 4QA. Tel: 0161 745 8925. TACADE has published 40 different curriculum programmes, fact sheets and other resources for schools and other target groups
Theatre Adad, P O Box 3551, London SE14 5PU. Tel: 01753 573846 The Primary School Drugs Pack, aimed at 8 to 11-year-olds, combining factual information with activities on attitudes and feelings and skills necessary for dealing with drug-related situations, is available from Health Wise, 1st Floor, Cavern Walks, 8 Mathew Street, Liverpool L2 6RE. Tel: 0151 227 4415
Price Pounds 39 plus pp
Tackling Drugs - A Resource Packs for Schools, aimed at 11 to 16-year-olds for use in PSHE, consisting of activities focused on attitudes, knowledge and decision-making, is available from the Northamptonshire Police Community Involvement Dept. Tel: 01604 700 7002
IMPACT: a service for young people aged 14-18 in Islington who are involved in drug use. Tel: Janine Rowe, project co-ordinator, 0171 251 5860
SCODA, Standing Conference on Drug Abuse, 32-36 Loman Street, London SE1
0EE. Tel: 0171 928 9500
Release, 388 Old Street, London EC1V 9LT. Tel: 0171 729 9904