An education is for life – so what do our children learn about addiction?
Mary Brett argues that schools should act in loco parentis and prevent their children from starting to use drugs. She is sadly disappointed.
Download Intervene 3 – 149 – Children’s drug education
Article 33 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislative, administrative, social and educational measures, to protect children from the illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances as defined in the relevant international treaties”.
I introduced drug education into the school in which I taught about 30 years ago, before guidelines or textbooks appeared. Common sense, my biological background and my teenage children, a boy and a girl, pointed me in the right direction. Of prime importance would be a scientific explanation using simple diagrams of exactly how drugs affect the body. Then I would tackle other aspects of drug-taking and its consequences.
Parents expected a prevention approach to stop their children from ever starting to use drugs – and we now know that delaying the age of first use is a strong prevention measure for life. Schools are in loco parentis, protecting children and keeping them safe and in 1995 the government strategy Tackling Drugs Together appeared with its first objective: “to discourage young people from taking drugs”.
Shamefully, over the years came the gradual, insidious and disastrous acceptance of the “normality” of drug use. Harm-reduction rather than drug- and harm-prevention policies became official. Most parents are not aware of this.
Teachers still follow government guidelines unchanged since 2003/4. For the past 15 years or so, harm-reduction drug education has held sway. “Children will use drugs anyway, give them informed choice and tips on safer use,” has been the philosophy and message. “Prevention strategies are not able to prevent experimental use,” advisers have said. “Harm minimisation reflects the reality that many young people use both legal and illegal substances”.
This policy of defeatism is in contradiction to the drug laws which set significant criminal penalties for possession and dealing. Using ‘harm reduction’ in this way does not tackle drugs, but accommodates, even condones or accelerates their use.
There is no guaranteed safe way to take any drug – legal or illegal. Nor will all youngsters use drugs. 30-40% might try them, but how many try smoking – 90%? Regular drug use is about 9%.
That brings us to “choice”. Should we let children choose to break the law? We tell them about poisonous berries, not to cross the road till they are old enough; we protect them. Children are not miniature adults. Brains mature when people reach their 20s, the risk-taking part developing before the inhibitory area so they will likely ‘take a chance’. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and Department of Education & Skills guidelines advocate choice not be made until key stage 2. Seven to 11-year olds are incapable of making critical life decisions that could impair their cognitive functioning and mental health – nor should they. There is an age limit of 18 for purchasing alcohol and tobacco yet seven-year olds are deemed capable of choosing to use potentially life-threatening substances.
Government drug education policy appears to normalise use rather than abstinence. You won’t find the word “prevention” in QCA guidelines. But they suggest that 11-14 year olds play with cigarette papers, matches, syringes and foil.
How are children “informed”? Parents and children need to know about drugs but information about cannabis especially is woefully inadequate, often misleading, even false (I have complained to ministers and given evidence to Select Committees about the government’s Frank website).
Harm reduction does have a place in treatment with a known user, a short-term introductory strategy for adults on the road to abstinence. But it does not have a place in the classroom, where drug and alcohol use should be prevented. Over 90% of my pupils had no interest in using drugs. Harm-reduction tips too often can and do act as a green light.
Between 1979-1991, a huge prevention campaign in the US – Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” – coincided with a dramatic decrease in drug use. Many people are not aware of this, perhaps because it seems counter-intuitive, that more should be needed. Parents, teachers, police, youth and church leaders, social workers, the children themselves – all were involved. Usage plummeted from 23million people to 14million people. Cannabis and cocaine use halved, daily cannabis use fell 75%.
A 1983 survey found that over 70% abstained from cannabis use, fearing physical or psychological damage, 40% due to the law and 60% because of parental disapproval. A 2005 survey in the UK showed strikingly similar results with about 90% refusing any drug because of health risks.
Most children do not want to take drugs and want reasons to say “no” – true scientific facts gives them one reason. I was asked for literature on many occasions for friends at other schools. Peer group pressure can be very strong. Children need, want and value rules and regulations. They feel safe and secure with boundaries to kick against.
Random drug testing provides another excuse and support to say “no”. Six schools in my area introduced ‘sniffer dogs’ under a local police initiative. Opinion was canvassed beforehand. 98% of parents, 92% of staff and 82% of the pupils voted in favour.
The law, education and employment prospects, relationships, visa refusals, testing by employers… they were all covered, shocking stories often requested. Sessions on life skills, self-esteem, bullying, resistance skills and peer pressure are all needed. I had lots of very positive feedback from parents and the pupils, always my greatest supporters.
The latest Drug Strategy advocating prevention appeared in December 2010 – but, as with the goal of becoming drug free, implementation was very different to the policy and nothing changed. It is a betrayal.
For legal reasons, perhaps I should not name those responsible for school drug education: two harm-reduction charities with no history of supporting people becoming drug free and with abysmal information about cannabis, even denying physical dependence.
In line with their purpose, instead of preventing young people from taking drugs they aim to ‘minimise drug and alcohol-related harms’. Alongside them is a family support charity, again without a history of knowing how or even wishing to help people live without drugs.
One of these charities has a government – in other words, taxpayer – funded programme in which 70% of respondents agreed that: “I am confident that I know more about drugs and alcohol and can use them more safely in future”. There was no mention of prevention, in any sense. I attended one of its recent meetings – until I spoke, the word illegal was conspicuous by its absence. It was greeted with mirth by the audience, many of them young female teachers. Teachers who will teach the next generation.
Article 33, an international treaty to prevent drug use in our children has been abandoned in practice.
Mary Brett was biology teacher and head of health education at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School (boys), is a member of the World Federation Against Drugs, former vice-president of Eurad and chair of Cannabis Skunk Sense which is secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cannabis and Children.
She wrote a report on drug education for The Social Justice Policy Group in 2007: Drug Education: A Systematic Review with special reference to the UK, Preliminary Findings and Comments.
It is available under ‘books’ on the website www.cannabisskunksense.co.uk.