Responsiblity for Young People in Drug and Alcohol Policy

NO CHAOSChildren & Young People Now report the end of the Department for Education’s policy responsibility for youth policy.  This is a move that has been coming down the pipeline for some time, but I’m not sure that it’s as welcome as some other parts of the sector are saying in their comments to CYPN.

From our perspective it means that the vital policy link between a variety of risky behaviours, including substance misuse, is now no longer held in a single team but is spread across departments and will now be hindered (when it comes to substance misuse) by focusing on drugs, alcohol and tobacco in isolation.

Only last year the National Audit Office was praising the drug strategy as an example of joined up working across departments, saying:

Several joint strategies relate to early action. For example, the Home Office leads on the overall Drugs Strategy, and within this the Department of Health and the Department for Education lead jointly on reducing demand, including preventative measures.

Well that’s less true today than it was then.

The information we have is that the Home Office will now lead on the work the DfE would have previously done on young people and substance misuse. Although even that isn’t entirely sure as there is likely to be a substantial role for Public Health England and the Department of Health may still have some sway.  Meanwhile it is clear that other parts of youth policy – positive activities, youth voice etc. – are now to be addressed to the Cabinet Office.

The areas the DfE are reserving to itself are any education aspects, so things like behaviour and attendance, safeguarding and alternative provision will continue to be a DfE policy responsibility. The DfE will also continue to have responsibility for drug and alcohol education issues – though if the PSHE review is anything to go by we shouldn’t expect too much from that quarter at the moment.

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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.”

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The public on drugs…

YouGov have published the results of an opinion poll they conducted on behalf of the Sun asking people about their views on drug policy.

Has drug policy been working?

Interestingly younger people are more likely to feel that the government’s policy has been reducing drug use than older age groups – 21% of 18-24 year olds said they felt the policy had been going well compared to 11% of 40-59 year olds and 13% of those over 60.

Also of interest are the different reaction of different regions with Londoners being much more likely to think the policy has been working (18%) to those in Scotland (7%).

Cannabis lawIn terms of what to do about controlling cannabis (and other ‘soft’ drugs) the public seem split with just under half (43%) favouring the current position and the other half (49%) favouring either decriminalisation or legalisation.  Since YouGov last asked these questions in June there seems to have been a move away from the current regime and a slight increase in those favouring decriminalisation.

In terms of ‘hard’ drugs such as heroin and cocaine the mood seems to have gone the other way with an increase in those saying they favour the current criminal penalties for possession, up from 79% to 83%.

A Royal CommissionThe poll then turns to the main recommendation made by the Home Affairs Select Committee, that the government set up a Royal Commission to consider different drug policy options.  The public seem well disposed to the idea of doing this by a 3:1 margin, but there are some interesting differences when looked at by age group.  It is younger people who are much less likely to offer support for a Royal Commission, but it appears that this may be because they are less certain of what a commission might be able to achieve.

Another aspect of this poll may explain why politicians are responding in the ways that we have seen to the idea of a commission.  The poll finds that Conservative voters are much less likely to support a Royal Commission (59%) compared with their Lib Dem counterparts (75%), with Labour’s supporters in between (62%).

The final questions are about introducing a regulatory regime similar to Portugal’s and here it appears that support is waning, both in terms of limited trails (down from 60% to 54%) or adopting the same approach across the whole country (down from 46% to 40%).

Drug Prevention: An Assessment of the Annual Review of the Drug Strategy

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

Targeted prevention:

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.

FRANK

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.

Education Reforms

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.

PSHE

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.

Conclusion

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.