The Home Office has published a review of the government’s drug strategy which includes sections on education and prevention. In many ways it isn’t a useful document, in that it doesn’t easily allow the reader to hold the government to account, there are almost no numbers reported either in terms of investment or outcomes.
But this doesn’t mean we can’t take a view and this is my assessment of where they are against their claims and plans.
In the past year
We have invested in a range of programmes of targeted prevention to reduce risk factors for substance misuse and given local authorities the power and freedom to make funding decisions that meet local needs by introducing the Early Intervention Grant, which pools various smaller grants.
I presume that this refers at least in part to the Choices Programme; a £4m, one-off, pot aimed at reducing substance misuse and associated crime and anti-social behaviour. Mentor was one of the organisations that successfully bid to run a programme under this funding scheme and working with Addaction delivered Street Talk, a trial of an evidence based screening and brief intervention approach with young people in contact with existing youth services.
The fund, while a welcome opportunity to undertake important prevention work with vulnerable young people, was released in September 2011 and came to an end in March 2012. The feedback from our evaluation of the project was that this very tight timetable meant that the project faced considerable barriers in achieving our objectives – a process that was further hampered by delays in vetting our local partners to ensure they were not extremists.
Working on such a short timescale has significantly hampered the opportunity to learn about effective ways of preventing substance misuse, and to be able to find ways of mainstreaming the most promising activities.
We have re-launched the FRANK service, which is recognised as a high quality, credible resource for young people seeking advice and information about drugs. […] We are currently exploring options for enhancing how young people interact with FRANK including the piloting of a webchat.
The decision to re-launch FRANK is welcome.
The Department of Health has reported that the decision in 2010 not to support the service with public health advertising led to a fall in the numbers visiting the website (down by 17%) and calling the helpline (down by 22%).
We know however that public health advertising and social media campaigns have a better chance of succeeding in persuading their audience to change behaviours if they are explicitly tied to other interventions and if they foster a sense of positive social norms.
The Cabinet Office’s review of government direct communication was published in March 2011 and stated that in future the government should be looking for partnerships to deliver their messages.
Advice for Schools
We have, with the Association of Chief Police Officers, published revised advice for schools on managing drugs and drug-related incidents on school premises.
The revised advice withdrew guidance to schools on delivering drug education.
We believe that this is a retrograde step given that Ofsted’s most recent judgement was that drug education along with sex education was not covered at all, or was dealt with superficially.
Lack of discrete curriculum time in a quarter of the schools visited, particularly the secondary schools, meant that programmes of study were not covered in full. The areas that suffered included aspects of sex and relationships education; education about drugs, including alcohol; and mental health issues.
Early Years Interventions
We have continued to invest in programmes such as Family Nurse Partnerships and Children’s Centres and committed funding to expand the offer of 15 hours a week free education to disadvantaged two-year olds.
This is welcome, though we need to be clear that the international evidence for the Family Nurse Partnerships delivering long-term reductions in substance misuse is mixed.
We have introduced educational reforms that address risk factors. These include: exclusions trials, giving schools responsibility and funding to strengthen early intervention for pupils at risk and improve the educational outcomes for those who are excluded; a new requirement for all local authorities to provide full-time education for all children and young people in alternative provision from September 20111; and a review to improve the quality of alternative provision.
If the results of the reforms are a continuing decline in the numbers of pupils excluded and absent from school, we would expect this to impact on the risks that young people take with drugs.
As Demos has point, out commissioning early intervention services is complex and we need to be certain that schools have the appropriate tools to undertake the task effectively.
We have consulted on the Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education review to raise the quality of teaching and ensure that young people have the knowledge and skills to lead their lives healthily, safely and responsibly.
We are concerned that the pace at which the review is being conducted gives the impression that drug education and prevention is not a priority for the government.
The review of PSHE education was announced in November 2010 and concluded its consultation phase in November 2011. We have yet to see any concrete proposals about how the government will support the delivery of school’s drug education.
In the meantime we have seen considerable local disinvestment in the support available for schools. The National Health Education Group (NHEG) in a survey of local authorities last year found that around 1 in 3 will not be supporting drug education.
Priorities for the coming year
Legal Highs / Novel Psychoactive Substances
Keep the ‘drugs conversation’ relevant and accessible by:
- continuing to provide high quality information and advice on drugs and NPS;
- maintaining the relevance of FRANK through enhanced interactivity; and
- challenging misconceptions on NPS – by working with partners and by targeting the highest risk groups.
We acknowledge that New Psychoactive Substances are a significant policy challenge, and that young people do need high quality information. However, information is insufficient, as with other drugs young people require a mixed approaches. We would reiterate that information and advice is less likely to be successful in protecting young people without efforts to build life skills and values.
We also believe that there is a significant role to be played by Trading Standards authorities in identifying local retailers supplying these substances, (for example we have been told of convenience stores and petrol stations that stock legal highs); and providing them with clear guidance and education.
Supporting the Evidence Base
Support the development of evidence-based solutions by local partners on what works in prevention by:
- developing a new database of programmes and services for young people which includes information on the strength of the evidence of their effectiveness;
Experience in the United States suggests that while evidence based repositories can help to spread understanding of good programmes, on their own they are insufficient to achieve the sea-change in practice that is necessary.
- developing a measure of young people’s drug and alcohol use at a local level to help local authorities identify priorities and inform effective commissioning;
Under the last government the TellUs survey of school pupils had been developed to provide this local data set to support a National Indicator. Both the indicator and the TellUs survey were scrapped by the coalition on assuming office in 2010.
We are pleased that a local indicator will be re-introduced.
providing a framework of outcomes for youth services to measure their impact on reducing underlying risk factors for substance misuse.
This is to be welcomed.
Overall, as a drug prevention charity, Mentor is profoundly disappointed with this first annual review of the government’s drug strategy. We believe it displays an absence of leadership, ambition and focus. We are particularly concerned that there is a lack of any measurable targets, making it impossible to measure how successful the strategy may be in reducing the numbers of young people using drugs.