You are never too young to learn about the risks of drugs misuse - Scotland Against Drugs is taking the message into nursery and special schools, Raymond Ross writes
A radical initiative to introduce drug education to pre-school children has secured a share of the pound;750,000 Scottish Drugs Challenge Fund this year.
Pace Theatre Company has been awarded pound;25,000, in partnership with West Dunbartonshire Council, for a drama project that will build on primary and secondary school work the fund has supported.
Pace, one of the UK's largest theatre-in-education and youth theatre companies, is to produce a fully interactive DVD. It will feature an animated character to guide youngsters through a series of stories and adventures, introducing them to the dangers of drugs and of accepting or taking anything they are unsure about.
The venture is one of 35 innovative projects across Scotland that will receive support from the fund this year. The Scottish Drugs Challenge Fund, which was started in 1996, is a Scottish Executive awards scheme administered by Scotland Against Drugs (SAD). It aims to help communities to address problems at local level, by uniting public, private and voluntary sectors. Other schemes that have attracted financial backing are in Greater Glasgow, Fife, Orkney, Aberdeen, Dundee and Angus.
The Paisley-based theatre company will tour all pre-5s establishments in West Dunbartonshire over the next session, to show the DVD to over 3,000 children and run participatory workshops.
Nursery staff will be encouraged to train alongside the professional facilitators. In-service training will enable staff to run workshops after Pace has left. A book to accompany workshops and parental training sessions will be available.
The PaceWest Dunbartonshire venture is part of SAD's new strategy of engaging with the pre-school education sector. During the past six years, SAD has trained every headteacher and one other teacher in every mainstream primary (1998-2000) and every secondary (2001-04) to deal with drugs education and drug incidents.
"Following the success of the these programmes in primaries and secondaries, we want to focus on pre-5 education and special education," says Alistair Ramsay, the director of SAD.
"But first we will have to do an analysis of specific needs for special educational needs and pre-5 children. The approach will be more diverse than in mainstream because of the age difference and learning needs involved."
The Scottish Drugs Challenge Fund started with pound;250,000 and has averaged pound;500,000 a year until this year. The current figure of pound;750,000 was allocated to meet the increasing level of competition and better-quality proposals.
This year saw the second highest number of applications for funding, at 105. The largest number was 107 in 1997. Individual projects receive a maximum of pound;50,000 and must fit in with the strategies of local drug action schemes.
"The Challenge Fund projects are all about innovation and ingenuity," says Mr Ramsay. "They push the boundaries. We're looking for new approaches.
"Through the fund we have distributed pound;8.8 million in nine years.
That's a significant amount of money invested in local solutions to local needs."
Jane Maguire, co-ordinator of the fund, says: "The fund is about people in local communities identifying problems and solutions and coming to us for support.
"It has to be a partnership project with private sector support. This is to encourage the private sector to do their bit. We give guidance to applicants about raising private finance and support in kind.
"Public or voluntary sector support also strengthens any bid," she says.
"Drug problems are actually contracting slightly in Scotland," Mr Ramsay says. "There has been a 2 per cent drop in the overall use of drugs in the past two years, according to the national Salsus (Scottish Schools, Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey) report published in March."
"I believe that is due to what is being done in prevention and education.
It's largely due to primary and secondary teachers being trained to deal with the realities of drug use.
"It makes sense for us now to extend the Primary School Initiative and Education Sector Initiative work to pre-school education and, through the Challenge Fund, to support such authorities as West Dunbartonshire, which is the first in Scotland - perhaps in the UK - to tackle pre-5 drugs education."
The success of the recent ESI secondary teacher programme was validated by a special report from the Scottish Council for Research in Education published last June. It said: "Following their training, participants reported being far more confident to plan and teach drug education in their classrooms. They also indicated that they felt more aware of their own attitudes, pupil welfare issues and how to locate support from relevant agencies."
The training also had "a longer-term positive impact on teachers' ability to provide drug education, in line with recognised good practice. Most notably, this had involved teachers moving towards more interactive and participative teaching approaches. The nature and benefit of these changes were confirmed by pupils," the report said.
Mr Ramsay says: "Developing a similar programme for the pre-5s sector will mean taking a holistic approach and addressing issues about healthy and unhealthy lifestyles.
"Taking the maxim that all medicines are drugs but not all drugs are medicines, we can ask such questions as 'What drugs are used in a medical context?', 'You would never use anyone else's medicine, would you?' and 'So, you don't take medicine from someone you don't know, do you?'.
"It is to be hoped that this kind of approach will help to develop a built-in resistance to dealers in the long term. It's about keeping safe."
For further information on the Scottish Drugs Challenge Fund, contact Jane Maguire, tel 0141 331 6150, e-mail email@example.com www.sad.org.uk