Many drug educators now shun the 'just say no' approach, turning instead to damage limitation exercises. For Bradford's primary pupils, they include a day out at the local rugby club. Jonathan Croall reports.
Barry Shinn gazes out across the almost deserted Odsal Stadium in Bradford. "A lot of people would be shocked at how much very young children know about drugs," he says. "They're often a mine of information."
Below us in the main grandstand, a bunch of 10-year-olds from Holme Middle School, armed with clipboards, sit in the front rows, deep in discussion with a scattering of sturdy young men decked out in vibrant black, red and yellow tracksuits.
The home of Bradford Bulls rugby league club might seem an unlikely venue for an innovative drug education and prevention project. But for the past two-and-a-half years, children from the city's first and middle schools have been coming here for a rather special day out.
Under the guidance of project co-ordinator Glenda Allister, helped by Barry Shinn, a teacher, they spend most of the day working with some of the club's players, discussing healthy - and unhealthy - lifestyles. Drug-related issues come up in the conversation - the idea is that the children will listen seriously to what their local heroes have to say.
"A lot of the children have seen the players in action, either here or on Sky and they're quite awestruck," says teacher Shelley Ozsoy, who's come to the club today with the Year 6 class of 10 to 11-year-olds from Holme. "It makes them wonderful role models for this kind of work."
Odsal Chalkboard is one of 18 drugs education projects currently funded by the Government through its Grants for Education Support and Training (GEST) programme. The projects have collectively attracted Pounds 1.5m this year, while a further Pounds 4.5m will help train teachers with responsibility for drugs education.
Significantly, two-thirds of the projects have primary pupils in their sights. Their strategies vary enormously. In Brent, Bromley, Coventry, Newham and Surrey, theatre-in-education teams help deliver the message, while in Dorset, Year 7 pupils are educating their Year 6 peers. In Manchester a drug education pack is being prepared for five to seven-year-olds.
All this activity ties in with recent survey findings which show that this age-group is becoming increasingly familiar with the drugs culture. The latest research, carried out in primary schools in the London boroughs of Merton, Sutton and Wandsworth (see TES, September 27), shows that many eight and nine-year-olds have a detailed knowledge of cocaine, LSD, heroin and cannabis.
The Bradford children coming to Odsal live in some of the poorest estates in the city, with high crime rates and readily available drugs. Many know people who use drugs - sometimes they include members of their own family.
Some first-school pupils even know the street names of many of the drugs, are aware of who the local dealers are and where they are operating. It's not unusual for children as young as six or seven to come across discarded syringes.
In these circumstances the project team avoids the "just-say-no" approach, which many drug educators acknowledge has failed. Instead theytry to limit the damage by providing information, increasing the children's knowledge about drugs and their abuse, and raising their awareness of the risks.
"We want them to be better informed so they can make choices," says Glenda Allister, a former personal and social education adviser and drug education co-ordinator for Bradford. "But we try to make them look at drugs in the context of their whole well-being and development - not just physical, but also emotional, intellectual, psychological and spiritual."
Working in the Bulls' supp-orters' clubroom, surrounded by fading photographs of earlier heroes in the long hist-ory of the club (formerly Bradford Northern), the children talk with the teachers and players about why people take drugs ("Cos it makes you feel different"; "They want to look tough"; "To be part of the gang"; "For the buzz").
They then look at the risks involved, and what they might do if they were offered drugs. Their suggestions include "Phone a helpline", "Don't hang about", "Change your friends" and "Try to have a good time without drugs".
The players involved need to be selected as, inevitably, not all are good at working with children. Some of the under-19 team relate well to youngsters whose language and ideas are not much different from their own.
In the discussions and role-play that focus on the perils of using drugs, the players emphasise the need to be fit, the importance of diet and exercise for physical well-being, and the penalties they face if they use drugs, such as steroids, illegally.
Each of the days involves careful pre-planning between the class teacher and project staff.
The scheme, which now involves 20 Bradford schools and more than 2,000 youngsters a year, is clearly popular and is heavily booked for weeks ahead.
The Odsal Chalkboard Project is at Odsal Stadium, Odsal, Bradford BD6 1BS. Tel: 01535 662653.