School alcohol policy can effect drinking – but only if pupils think it will be enforced

School rulesA few years ago the survey the government commission about school children in England’s smoking drinking and drug use stopped asking schools whether they had a drug and alcohol policy, they found that (almost) everyone did, but what hasn’t been clear is whether those policies are effective.

If you take exclusions as an indicator (and I’ll admit it might not be a very good one) the messages are a bit mixed as I discussed in more detail back this time last year.  Then it seemed that while permanent exclusions for drugs and alcohol had been falling and fixed term exclusions had remained roughly stable they had both been increasing as a proportion of the overall exclusion rates.

New research carried out looking at school alcohol policies in the US and Australia suggest that they key element is not in having a policy but in whether the pupils think it will be enforced.

According to the write up of the research on Science Daily:

even if a school had a suspension or expulsion policy, if students felt the school didn’t enforce it then they were more likely to drink on campus. But, even if a school’s policy was less harsh — such as requiring counseling — students were less likely to drink at school if they believed school officials would enforce it.

They other key finding they describe is that harm is reduced if pupils think that the likely result of being caught is that they get an intervention by a teacher on the dangers of alcohol use, rather than being excluded.

The ADEPIS toolkit for schools wanting to review their drug and alcohol policy published earlier this year may be a useful way of helping pupils get a better understanding of what the school’s policy is and a helpful reminder to the rest of the school community about what their response to incidents should be.

Reviewing a school drug policy and responding to substance misuse

This was a presentation that my colleague Claire James gave to a conference about safeguarding in school recently.

The recently reviewed guidance to school governors points out:

Section 175 of the Education Act 2002 places a duty on the governing bodies of maintained schools, and regulations under section 157, about safeguarding pupils in Independent Schools (which include academies) requires academy trusts to have arrangements in place to ensure that they:

  • carry out their functions with a view to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children; and
  • have regard to the statutory guidance issued by the Secretary of State in considering what arrangements they need to make for the purpose of that section.

The governors document points to older guidance which defines safeguarding and promoting the wellbeing of children as:

  • protecting children from maltreatment;
  • preventing impairment of children’s health or development;
  • ensuring that children are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care; and
  • undertaking that role so as to enable those children to have optimum life chances and to enter adulthood successfully.

I think it would be difficult not to see drug prevention as part of the mix for supporting safeguarding; but it also makes me think about the needs of those pupils living with parents that are having problems with drugs and alcohol, or those children who are in care or being looked after by a family member (often because of drug and alcohol misuse) and ensuring that their needs are met.

DfE guidance for school governors and how to use it to make a case for drug prevention

The DfE have recently refreshed their guidance for school governors.  While there is no explicit reference to drugs or alcohol (unlike sex and relationships education which is addressed) there are elements in the guidance that may be useful.


The guidance points out that (for maintained schools) the law demands that the curriculum should be “balanced and broadly based” and should

promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society; and prepare pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.

One can, I think, make a very strong case that a school without a PSHE curriculum, including drug and alcohol education, would be falling down in regard to these duties.

Promoting the general wellbeing of pupils

Governors are advised that they have a duty towards promoting the wellbeing of their pupils which is set out in law as:

  • physical and mental health and emotional wellbeing;
  • protection from harm and neglect;
  • education, training and recreation;
  • the contribution children make to society; and
  • social and economic wellbeing.

Drug and alcohol prevention are ways that school governors can show they are contributing to the protection of pupils from harm as well as developing social wellbeing.

The guidance reminds governors of their duty to ensure the school has a behaviour policy based on regularly reviewed principles which must be the subject of consultation if they are to be changed.  Governors also have a number of roles in relation to exclusion including:

a wider role to hold headteachers to account for the lawful use of exclusion. Exclusion must be for disciplinary reason and all exclusions must be done in line with the legal requirements. Where a pupil is removed from the school premises without being excluded there needs to be a lawful basis for this decision, for example, under the powers of a maintained school to direct a pupil offsite to improve their behaviour.

Supporting pupils in school with additional health needs

The DfE recognise that some pupils will have additional health needs, which may include the need for medicines.  They say that governors should ensure that there is a policy for this eventuality and that:

The policy should address emergency procedures, training, supervision, record-keeping, including storage and disposal. It should also set up a named staff member to coordinate health care needs and to link with parents.

This reminds me of earlier guidance that DrugScope produced about handling Ritalin, a drug that seems to be of increasing concern in terms of misuse, which may be useful to schools.

Below is a presentation we’ve done aimed at helping school governors see how addressing drugs and alcohol could be important to their school.

Substance misuse and early intervention; a role for schools

Above are the slides I used at a conference on substance misuse and the role that schools play.

The argument I was trying to make was that the protective role that schools can play isn’t just down to the quality of their drug and alcohol education, or even the broader PSHE agenda (important though that is).

Rather we need school rules that are clear, applied consistently and help to identify and support students when they may be getting into trouble.  The curriculum needs to help young people develop relevant skills and values, rather more than focusing on facts about drugs or alcohol.  A positive school ethos that builds attachment has also been shown to be a powerful protective factor in young people’s lives.  And being able to make sure that vulnerable young people have early access to appropriate services means that problems can be dealt with before they lead to more intractable problems.

The presentation lead to two sets of interesting and important questions.

Firstly about the role of ex-users in drug education.  We heard from the audience about three distinct ways that schools and other organisations work with those in recovery from addiction:

  • As motivational speakers – through whole school or class assemblies
  • Following a programme delivered over a number of weeks – where students can then ask questions based on information acquired through the programme
  • As mentors to young people who are receiving treatment themselves

My sense was that broadly the audience would find it very helpful if there were some proper research done into the outcomes that might result from these sort of interventions.

The second issue that was raised was about identifying those at most risk, particularly those who are already using substances.  There was feedback that the changing patterns of use, and in particular the use of ‘legal highs’, may be changing the speed at which risk was becoming apparent.  One participant talked about the speed at which some young people were now moving from first use to turning up at A&E being a matter of weeks rather than months or years.

The question this raises for me is whether we have sufficiently good local data and screening tools to react to what might be quite localised problems.

The effects of the English Baccalaureate

The DfE have published some research they commissioned into the effects of the English Baccalaureate.

While there is no mention of PSHE or drug education in the report what comes across is that for a significant proportion of schools the emphasis on the subjects that are in the EBacc comes at the expense of those which are not.

The report says that 17% of schools are going to drop some subjects while 18% say that they expect to offer a narrower curriculum.

This is important to us in recognising just how difficult it may be to encourage secondary schools to introduce life skills programmes which take 10 or more sessions over the course of a year.

Particularly if there isn’t strong and enthusiastic backing from Ministers in the DfE.

Parents, School and Sport

A fair amount of our thinking on protective factors that may help prevent drug and alcohol problems in teenage years has focused on the roles of good parenting, school attachment, and sports as a diversionary activity.

This piece of research from the US gives us a slightly more nuanced view.

The researchers make the distinction between protective factors which they describe as being ‘effective for those identified as high risk takers’ and promotive factors which are effective for all.

The results come from looking at responses from over 36,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 16.

The abstract of the paper says:

Although parental monitoring was associated with lower alcohol and marijuana use among all adolescents (i.e., promotive effect), these effects were strongest among the highest risk takers (i.e., protective effect) and females. School bonding was associated with lower levels of both alcohol and marijuana use among all groups of adolescents, but these promotive effects were weak.

However, the findings about being involved with sport is more complex.  They found that participation was associated with higher levels of alcohol use among all males and younger girls who were not identified as risk takers.  Sports was however a positive effect around cannabis use for older girls, particularly those most at risk of drug use.

They conclude:

Overall, these findings suggest that of the three mechanisms studied, parental monitoring emerged as the most promising entry point for substance use prevention and intervention across groups, particularly for females and high risk-taking adolescents.