Alcohol – the missing component of the new science curriculum

On the day that the new national curriculum is unveiled we see that according to surveys undertaken by the School Health Education Unit one in ten primary school leavers say they have drunk alcohol in the last week.

As we know the Department of Education’s standard line on these things is to point to the science curriculum and then say that this can be built on through PSHE education.

So it is worth looking at whether in this final version of the curriculum the DfE have made any changes to the way they describe what schools need to teach when it comes to smoking, drugs and alcohol.

Assiduous readers of this blog will recall we looked at the proposed curriculum back in February and will therefore be prepared for the scant attention that is paid to drug education as a part of the science curriculum.

  • There is no reference to alcohol (except as part of organic chemistry in Key Stage 4).
  • In Year 6 pupils “should learn how to keep their bodies healthy and how their bodies might be damaged – including how some drugs and other substances can be harmful to the human body.”  And might look at the scientific research about the relationship between drugs and health.
  • In Key Stage 3 the biology curriculum includes teaching “the effects of ‘recreational’ drugs (including substance misuse) on behaviour, health and life processes.” What ‘recreational’ means isn’t defined.
  • Also in Key Stage 3 there’s an expectation that science teachers will touch on the impact of smoking on the “gas exchange system”.
  • Other than a mention for alcohol as part of organic chemistry there is no guidance for schools about teaching young people about drugs, alcohol, or tobacco between the ages of 14 and 16.

Overall this is, I think, the lightest of light touches and the failure to address alcohol specifically is worrying. I also can’t see how it will be credible for the next Focal Point report to say (as the last one did) that:

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

What is clear to me is that without support from a fully developed PSHE curriculum it will be hard for schools to show how they are delivering a curriculum that meets the needs of their pupils when it comes to drug and alcohol education.

Should drug education focus on drug use or drug abuse?

There’s an interesting looking paper in the Journal of Substance Use, I’ve only got access to the abstract, which argues that:

The persistent failure to differentiate use from abuse where currently illicit drugs are concerned undermines effective primary prevention of the addictive disorders we are really concerned with. Typical programmes have ignored this reality, which helps explain the failure of most drug education. Adolescents soon recognize the inaccuracies and exaggerations, which undermines the credibility of drug education and limits its effectiveness.

Without having read the whole article I’m clearly at a disadvantage, but I want to use the thesis as a jumping off point for a discussion of some of the complexities that drug education needs to grapple with. Continue reading

Parliamentary Question – DfE spending on drug education

Conservative MP Nick Dubois asks the DfE:

(1) how much the Department spent on educating young people on the risks associated with Class (a) A, (b) B and (c) C drugs in each of the last five years;

(2) how much the Department spent on advertising the risks associated with Class (a) A, (b) B and (c) C drugs via the Frank drug information campaign in each of the last five years.

The DfE Minister, Elizabeth Truss, responds:

The Department for Education does not explicitly fund drug education. School pupils are currently provided with education on the physiological effects of drugs as part of the statutory National Curriculum Programmes of Study for science. They may also receive wider drugs education as part of non-statutory personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education.

The FRANK service provides information and advice to young people about drugs. The Home Office, Department of Health and Department for Education work together to support the service. Funding is not allocated to advertising the risks associated with specific classes of drugs.

Here’s an example of the sort of information and advice FRANK has been providing young people.

Ofsted: Not yet good enough: PSHE education in schools

Ofsted have produced their latest report in PSHE education, Not yet good enough: personal, social, health and economic education in schools.

The report is based on inspections of 48 schools (half primary and half secondary) with 290 lessons, 31 assemblies and 20 other PSHE education-related activities observed.  In addition the inspectors talked to 200 teachers and 700 pupils.

As readers will guess from the title Ofsted have given their report they’re not convinced of the quality of provision, finding that in 40% of schools teaching was inadequate. Continue reading

#LDNprev conference

“Inspiring, interesting and informative”, the three words most used to describe Mentor’s youth advisors #LDNprev conference to discuss helping young Londoners to be safer when it comes to drugs and alcohol.

LYIP feedback

The conference included sessions on school drug and alcohol education, the skills that parents need to discuss these issues with their children, and on community safety.  These were based on research that our youth advisors had carried out with over 1,000 young people, experts, and policy makers and have been written up into three short papers published on our website.

Continue reading

The Statutory basis for Drug Education in England

When the Department for Education published the draft primary curriculum last year, one of the noticeable changes to the science curriculum was that the proposal is to no longer require primary schools to address drugs, tobacco, alcohol or medicines.

As those of us with a history in this area will know drug education relies on the science curriculum to provide a statutory foothold for its delivery in schools and so this change sent a bit of a shock-wave through our office and beyond.

The dilemma we faced is that for many years we’ve argued that teaching drug education as part of the science curriculum has the potential to reduce the scope of what is taught, missing out the vital practical skills and development of values that are at the heart of evidence based life-skills curricula.

So in some ways removing drugs from the science curriculum could be a positive thing were Personal Social Health and Economic (PSHE) education to be made statutory.

And while the framework document on the national curriculum review, published yesterday, does say:

All schools should make provision for personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE), drawing on good practice.

It doesn’t seem likely that it will be made statutory, at least for the time being.

So yesterday, when the proposed statutory curriculum was published, we rushed to the science curriculum to see what it had to say.

Key Stage 1 & 2

It seems that the government have had a bit of a rethink when it comes to the primary curriculum.  The year six programme of study now requires schools to teach pupils to:

recognise the impact of diet, exercise, drugs and lifestyle on the way their bodies function.

And the non-statutory guidance suggests that:

Pupils should learn how to keep their bodies healthy and how their bodies might be damaged – including how some drugs and other substances can be harmful to the human body… [They might explore] the work of scientists and scientific research (including historical sources, e.g. the work of John Boyd Orr) about the relationship between diet, exercise, drugs, lifestyle and health. They might collect data by interviewing health professionals and create guidance for younger children about how bodies work and how to keep them healthy.

Interestingly I note that there isn’t a specific reference to addressing alcohol, tobacco, volatile substances or medicines.  Something that may well form the basis of some of our response to the consultation.

Key Stage 3

The new biology curriculum in Key Stage 3 includes health education with a specific focus on drugs where schools are expected to address:

the effects of drugs (including as medicines as well as substance misuse) on behaviour, health and life processes such as conception, growth and development.

They are also expected to address the impact that smoking has on the breathing system at this point.

Again no specific mention of alcohol.

So if this is what ends up making up the national curriculum once the consultation finishes drug education will retain some statutory footing whatever the outcomes of the much delayed PSHE review.

Marking the government’s drug strategy from a children’s rights perspective

crae - 2012The Children’s Rights Alliance for England in their review of government action on the meeting the Convention on the Rights of the Child mark the government as having overseen a “significant deterioration in law or policy in the past year” in two of the three sections on drugs and alcohol.

They say that there has been a worsening of the position in relation to:

  • providing accurate and objective information on drugs and alcohol to young people; and
  • ensuring support is given to those attempting to end dependency on toxic substances

They also say there has been no significant no significant change in law or policy in the past year when it comes to studying the causes of substance misuse in order to provide targeted preventative measures.

Of particular concern to the authors is the impact of the increasing number of academies on health education.  They say:

The deregulation of education means that increasing numbers of academies and free schools are not under an obligation to, for example, teach key aspects of the curriculum in relation to sex and relationships, drugs and alcohol and citizenship. It also means that schools are subject to weaker accountability and oversight mechanisms.

The report quotes the evidence that we gave to the Home Affairs Select Committee on drug education and prevention.

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.”

Continue reading

BMA – Delaying initiation and minimising the use of illicit drugs

The British Medical Association have produced a large report looking to:

open and refocus the debate on drug treatment and drug policy through the eyes of the medical profession.

Chapter 7 of the report sets out their reading of the evidence for drug prevention and their take on the policy landscape.

What I notice is that the authors take a pretty pessimistic view of the state of evidence, pointing to the limited amount of research that has been carried out, how most of that has been carried out in the US, and the difficulty of showing long-term outcomes.

In many ways this is very similar to much of what we at Mentor point out when we talk about prevention, but our tone is much more positive about the potential for achieving better outcomes.  The slide I use in my presentations [below] describes the same research landscape as the BMA paint.

olive of prevention

What I try to emphasis is that the challenge is to grow the red ‘pepper’ and white ‘garlic’ parts of the olive while reducing the brown ‘bruise’.

I also note that when the American National Academy of Sciences looked at these issues in 2009 they seem to have come to a very different view of the evidence, arguing that:

Several decades of research have shown that the promise and potential lifetime benefits of preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral (MEB) disorders are greatest by focusing on young people and that early interventions can be effective in delaying or preventing the onset of such disorders.

The BMA paper concludes by arguing that it may be time to explore policy alternatives to universal school-based prevention predicated on drug education lessons.  Tentatively suggesting as an alternative approach that:

Taking action on preventing the underlying causes of drug use may be as effective as, or more effective than, preventing drug use directly.

It would be tempting to be irritated by this iteration of the challenge of Marmot but, while I don’t believe in throwing the baby out with the bath water (particularly just at a point when the evidence is stacking up which finds that “certain generic psychosocial and developmental prevention programs can be effective and could be considered as policy and practice options“) I’m attracted by extending our conception of what makes for a prevention programme.

It’s why we’ve been championing the Good Behaviour Game and Preventure, both are school based  programmes that don’t talk about drugs or alcohol, but which have shown longer term outcomes reducing substance misuse harms.

It’s also why we have produced a toolkit to help schools review and improve their drug policy, because we know that the rules that schools have and the ethos they engender have the potential to protect young people.  And it is why we are positive about environmental prevention interventions like Minimum Unit Pricing for alcohol.

But the relationships between early substance misuse and other outcomes suggests this isn’t a simple trade off.  Nor can we be confident that we’ve developed sophisticated screening tools or interventions that will help us identify all of those at risk of developing problems and reduce their numbers.

life course

It is why I think a life course approach, or sunblock as Professor Tom McLellan put it, offers more hope as a strategy, than trying a single track approach, but all of what is tried should try to follow the evidence for what has been shown to be most effective, and where that evidence doesn’t exist we need to develop it and then find ways of bringing it to scale.