Substance abusers need us to work together

7th January 2011 at 00:00

I recently attended a conference on the impact of substance misuse on children's educational attainment. The speakers from Learning and Teaching Scotland, Glasgow University and Glasgow City Council outlined how the curriculum addressed substance misuse issues and trained teachers to do so. Superb inputs from a university researcher, a psychiatrist, a GP and a clinical psychologist illustrated the lives and the experiences of families blighted by drug and alcohol abuse.

An estimated 60,000 Scottish under-16s have a drug-misusing parent. The impacts are clear: under-confidence; inconsistent and unpredictable behaviour; mood-swings; and insecurity. Children are often ill-fed, inadequately clad and dirty. The consequent social isolation feeds depression, anxiety and under-confidence.

Teachers require to recognise and be sensitive to such circumstances. The children require additional care, nurturing and support. Such children often under-perform, specifically in terms of formal attainment and qualifications.

The conference made all these points eloquently and held everyone's attention.

Yet, as my long-deceased granny would have said: "It was a swick." We were sold a conference on the impact of substance misuse on children's educational attainment. The only, very brief, message on attainment was that such children normally under-attain. As the far-from-deceased Paul Simon said: "As if I didn't know that."

The real issue is how to challenge that under-performance and raise the attainment of this cohort of children. Perhaps the problem was the lack of a single practising teacher on the speakers' list.

For the counsellors and the psychiatrists and the researchers, all of whom have already achieved their degrees and doctorates, the importance of five Standard grades to a 16-year-old from Castlemilk or Muirhouse may be minimal. At 16, the young person may indeed be unaware of the value of qualifications. Yet if we want to boost self-confidence, to provide a sense of efficacy, what better way than to emphasise the real and achievable success education can offer?

More importantly, education should be giving young people powerful insights and understandings about themselves and the world. If education does not make learners better people, more resilient, more competent, more able to take control of their own lives, it is purposeless.

Schools and teachers need to accept that we as a profession have a key role in the care of vulnerable youngsters, and that care and education are complementary and not in competition. But we must also reassert to our colleagues in the other caring professions that learning, formal education and qualifications are a priority for all children, including the most vulnerable. We might all then play a real part in raising the attainment of such youngsters.

Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh.

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