The story behind the headlines

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Two new packs attempt to address the reality of drug use - and to involve parents in getting the message across. Nicolas Barnard reports

One story nagged at headlines over the summer the way it nags at headlines all year, every year. The subject of drugs does not go away. As teachers headed for the beach, Junk was staking a claim on their reading list by winning the Carnegie Medal. The summer continued with the fatal shooting of a five-year-old in a Bolton street, one police chief's call for a Royal Commission, another's call for a crackdown, and the setting up of an unofficial commission of inquiry.

If it sometimes seems impossible to have a rational debate about drugs, a consensus does seem to be emerging: drug education needs to start earlier, parents must be more involved, and the "Just Say No" message beloved of politicians everywhere does not work.

It's with good timing then that two drug education packs arrive to address those concerns. Manchester's PRIDE and Northamptonshire's Tackling Drugs in the Primary School - both aimed at primary children - seek (in differing ways) to involve parents and develop an effective message or strategy by addressing the reality of drug use.

The packs, produced by local education authorities with police, health promotion teams and other interested parties, are examples of the imaginative, multi-agency work which LEAs are now pursuing and which the new Government is keen to encourage, particularly in health-related areas. And both extend highly-successful projects already run by the Council on Addiction in Northamptonshire and Manchester's Partnership with Parents.

Research carried out by Roehampton Institute in London earlier this year indicated that parents were not sufficiently involved in drug education, with the result that they often gave conflicting messages to their children.

PRIDE addresses that with a four-week programme for key stage 1 pupils, which aims specifically to involve parents. Trials in 26 Manchester primary schools suggest a success that has surprised even its creators.

The key is a series of activities which children are given to do at home with their parents, who are invited in to school for a meeting at the beginning, and to a celebratory assembly at the end of the course. Some assemblies have had 100 per cent attendance by parents.

Project co-ordinator Emma Beresford says the programme was trialled in some tough inner-city schools where it's often difficult to involve parents. "But because this uses a whole-class approach and you're asking them to do very specific activities with their children at home - and you give them all the materials - a large proportion have got involved."

PRIDE is a bright, well-produced pack with clear instructions and easily photocopiable materials of everything from the opening letter to parents to badges, checklists, games and a final certificate.

Closely tied to the relevant parts of the national curriculum, the pack teaches broad, simple messages about healthy behaviour, introducing children to the concept of medicines and the idea that different substances and foods can be good or bad - and that some may be good but should only be taken at certain times. It features 16 home and classroom activities. The emphasis is on the practical, with plenty of games and quizzes, cut-out pictures and finger puppets - with the important message that each child is special with individual choices. In one activity, parents and children agree rules for the home, such as "no playing with matches", write them on to a picture of a house and then colour it in. In "Our safe home", they cut out images of tablets, bottles of bleach and other substances they find in their home and stick them on to a picture of a lockable cupboard and shelves. All pictures are provided.

Children's enthusiasm at doing something with their parents, the frequent feedback from teachers to parents as well as pupils, and the clear nature and well-defined targets of the exercises all contributed to the pilot's success.

Tying activities to home not only reinforces the message for children, but helps parents set house rules about safe behaviour, for example, around the medicine cabinet or cleaning cupboard.

Potentially the trickiest area was involving parents in messages about tobacco and alcohol when many of them smoked and drank. But schools often found they were the keenest their children should get healthy messages.

PRIDE has also brought parents into the school and helped give them confidence in their own ability to educate their children - an effect that has benefits for the rest of the curriculum.

The Manchester team is confident enough in the pack to be offering bulk discount to other local authorities. They are now working on a follow-up resource for key stage 2.

Northamptonshire's coalition against drug abuse is working the other way - following up its well-received secondary school pack with a resource for primary schools.

Tackling Drugs in the Primary School is less attractively produced than the PRIDE pack, but more detailed and fully argues its reasoning for what it describes as its "different approach".

It says that most drug education is simplistic and falls into one of three patterns: Just Say No; teaching the facts and leaving the (informed) choice to the pupils; or teaching the skills needed to resist drugs. Those approaches, it argues, are either ineffective or counter-productive. Instead the scheme aims to change attitudes, and allow children to develop skills, values and knowledge to reject drug use. "Children who make up their minds to take drugs have built up their attitudes by the time they leave primary school," says co-author Robin Burgess. "This is very much about catching them early."

The pack is intended as a practical resource, to help in running classroom activities and formulating school policies - even in spotting signs of drug abuse in parents and children and giving basic first aid.

A useful glossary of terms such as addiction and tolerance - often used but not always fully understood - is included, as is a reading list of follow-up reading and current legislation and police procedures.

Classroom activities begin by assessing what children already know about drugs and go on to look at different situations through which they can discuss courses of action and learn about dangerous or anti-social behaviour.

Different activities are suggested for different age groups. As in PRIDE, many look closely at the home and the beneficial as well as harmful effects of household, prescribed and illegal drugs. There is a greater emphasis on friends and community, and the programme becomes more sophisticated for older children with discussions about why people take drugs and activities to help pupils recognise when somebody is trying to persuade them.

NIADEC's standpoint is unashamedly moral: drugs may be enjoyable but they damage society and individuals. It resists the idea that people take drugs through peer pressure but accepts they take them because they are fun. "Much drug education takes place in a moral vacuum - here are the facts, make a choice. This is very different," says Robin Burgess.

"A lot of teachers wonder if they should be teaching morality. Wesidestep that - we're not interested in moral relativism. This is a pragmatic decision we came to on our reading of what drugs do to individuals and society."

PRIDE - Parents' Role In Drugs and Safety Education

Produced by Manchester Inspection and Advisory Service Published by D2. Available from Manchester IAS, The Acorn Centre, Royal Oak Road, Manchester M23 1EB. Pounds 24.50 including postage. Special rates for orders of 20 or more copies.

Tackling Drugs in the Primary School Produced and published by NIADEC (Northamptonshire Inter-Agency Drugs Awareness and Education Committee) Available from Council on Addiction in Northamptonshire, 81 St Giles St, Northampton NN1 1JF.

Pounds 16 including postage.

PRIDE - Parents' Role In Drugs and Safety Education

Produced by Manchester Inspection and Advisory Service Published by D2. Available from Manchester IAS, The Acorn Centre, Royal Oak Road, Manchester M231EB. Pounds 24.50 including postage. Special rates for orders of 20 or more copies.

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