If drug education is central to the government’s prevention strategy why don’t they know more about it?

The government’s annual report to the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Abuse (EMCDDA) has been published and as always it has a chapter on Prevention.

The government say:

School-based drug education forms a central part of the United Kingdom’s approach to universal drug prevention.

And argues that drug education is part of the national curriculum and that most schools have a drug education policy. The report also points out that the DfE carried out a review of PSHE education (including drug education) in 2011.

Unfortunately it doesn’t record that Ministers have yet to make recommendations as to how government will support better drug education some 14 months after the consultation on the review closed.  The report also points out that the revised non-statutory guidance for schools issued in 2012 “does not cover drug education.”

However, the report says we can expect more from government in the next year when they are:

pledged to improve the quality of PSHE education in schools with the aim of providing young people with knowledge of the potential risks of taking drugs and the confidence to resist pressure to take them.

What worries me about this promise is that a curriculum focused on knowledge and the potential risks involved in drug taking is unlikely to be an effective prevention approach.  If we’re to be effective then we should be investing in programmes that develop lifeskills, undermine unhealthy misconceptions, and help young people to develop their wider values and aspirations, or in programmes  and approaches that mitigate some of the social determinants that are associated with problematic drug use.

In Scotland and Wales there are other initiatives – Choices for Life in Scotland and the All Wales School Liaison Core Programme for example.  In the Welsh case there is at least some proper evidence for the approach they’ve taken.

Out of School

Turning to out of school provision the report points out that central government fund the Positive Futures programme providing prevention and diversionary activities to at risk young people between the ages of 10-19 in 91 areas of England.  However, this is the last year of central government support and that the future of the programme will be dependent on securing funding from the newly elected Police and Crime Commissioners and other local commissioners.

The other activities that the government have supported in this area are:

  • The database of effective practice that the Centre for Analysis for Youth Transitions are working on
  • The Choices programme that ran for 6 months in 2011/12
  • The FRANK service.

Where’s the money?

chart_1 (21)Another aspect of the Focal Point reports that I always find useful as an indicator of government’s priorities is the section on how resources are allocated.

It seems as if the methodology for calculating how spending is allocated has been changed this year but the report continues to show how ‘education’ spending has suffered in comparison with other areas of drug expenditure.

As you cchart_1 (23)an see from the graph (above) ‘education’ spending has always been the poorest cousin in labelled public expenditure on drugs.  What the amalgamated graph doesn’t show is the substantial reductions that this small budget has seen in recent years.  For that you need to look at it on its own.

I’ve put quote marks around ‘education’ as what the government have tended to include in this category is what I think of as public health advertising, in particular the FRANK advertising budget.

What it doesn’t include is what the government consider to be their ‘central’ approach to universal prevention; school based education and prevention.

In a previous Focal Point report the government had made an estimate of the amount of local resources that were husbanded towards achieving the drug strategy’s aims (covered here on this blog), and this year they have returned to that task.

Unfortunately when it comes to education or prevention the authors take the view that it’s just too complicated to try and estimate.  They say:

In 2007, expenditure on providing drug education in schools was calculated. However, there has been no further research looking at the amount of time spent on drug education and given the difficulties in disaggregating time and the fact that costs are purely opportunity costs rather than a potential saving of public money, it has been decided not to provide estimates this time.

It’s worth noting that there has been more recent research into the amount of time spent on drug education since 2007 – the 2010 report to the DfE on PSHE education has lots of detail – but It’s the last bit of that quote I’d like you to concentrate on.

If school based drug education is at the ‘centre’ of the government’s universal prevention initiatives why would they think that there’s no potential to save public money?

In fact when reputable organisations, like the Washington State Institute for Public Policy or closer to home the Social Research Unit, look at the benefit to cost ratios of effective prevention interventions they find the potential for considerable savings of public money.

When the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Center for Substance Abuse Prevention in the USA looked at the issue they found that for every dollar invested in effective prevention curricular they would expect to save $18.

So why doesn’t our government expect a central plank of its drug strategy to achieve similar outcomes?

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