Family education- better than cure

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With a bill aiming to ensure compulsory drug and alcohol education in schools making its way through Parliament, a new Adfam briefing looks
at the role that education can play in prevention. DDN reports

The aim of the Relationship, Drug and Alcohol Education (Curriculum) Bill 2012-13, which has its second reading in the House of Commons later this month, is to make drug and alcohol education a compulsory part of the national curriculum.

Although many believe that effective education on substance issues should be a fundamental part of children’s schooling, an internal review by ministers into Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) that began two years ago has yet to report. ‘Those working in the education sector tell us that schools infer from this that government sees PSHE delivery as irrelevant to education,’ comments drug education charity Mentor, with 60 per cent of schools delivering drug and alcohol education once a year or less. Even then it is often ‘poor, incomplete or totally irrelevant’, the charity says, with 16-year-old pupils reporting that they get the same lessons as 11-year-olds.

Among the organisations urging the government to support the private members’ bill – which is sponsored by Labour MP for Hull North, Diana Johnson – is Adfam. The call comes in a new briefing paper based on a roundtable discussion with service providers, drug charities and representatives from the children’s sector, civil servants and the police, on the theme of ‘where next for demand reduction?’ in today’s financial and political climate. The group looked particularly at how parenting and family relationships can influence young people’s decisions.

‘Reducing demand represents a major strand of the government’s drug strategy, but progress has been slow compared to reform of the treatment system and the concentration on recovery,’ says Adfam chief executive Vivienne Evans. ‘It’s harder to tell who’s “responsible” for reducing demand, since so many cultural factors are involved – whose fault is it if demand goes up, and who do we credit if it goes down?’

While demand reduction is not the ‘sole preserve’ of drug education in school, it does present an opportunity for ‘consistent, available and evidence-based interventions with most young people’, states Demand reduction, drug prevention and families. Ensuring that education is delivered effectively across the country is ‘a major, achievable and testable goal, so it’s understandable that people focus on it sometimes’, says Evans. ‘It’s interesting that the new bill was introduced by an opposition MP, but we are calling on government to support it and renew the focus that’s been lacking during the ongoing delay with the PSHE review. Reducing demand for drugs should not be a partisan issue.’

The briefing is also clear that demand reduction initiatives need to look at root causes of behaviour, rather than simply focusing on a particular substance. ‘The roundtable felt that it was not enough to show a school group “this is what cannabis looks like” or bring in someone in recovery to say “don’t make the mistakes I made”,’ Evans explains. ‘Robust demand reduction interventions need to ask what are the reasons young people use drugs? Yes, some will be experimenting like many young people do, but others might be impacted by other risk factors, including their parents’ own use of drugs or alcohol.’

While there aren’t the same discussions around ‘recovery’ for young people as there are for adults, it’s still important to maintain a wider perspective, she says. ‘We’re less likely to be dealing with chemical addiction, so we need to examine the factors which support them to make positive choices around drug and alcohol use, and which might stop it becoming problematic or dependent’ – such as confidence, self-esteem and healthy relationships with partners and friends as well as parents.

The briefing also calls on the government to make sure that families have access to the most up-to-date information to enable informed discussions with their children – has it been doing enough to support families in this respect? ‘I think there’s a difficulty here,’ Evans states. ‘Government can’t be too prescriptive or else their message won’t be taken seriously by people whose own experiences contradict official messages – with “safe” drinking limits that many people regularly exceed, for example. But, on the other hand, if they say “we’ll just leave it up to the parents” then it shows a lack of concern on what is a very important national issue.’

While government talks about the importance of supporting families, there is ‘little evidence that there is consistent policy to back up the rhetoric,’ she says. ‘Ensuring a consistent approach towards drug education which is family inclusive would be a good starting point.’ The new commissioning landscape also poses significant threats – as well as some opportunities – for family support services, which are often a vital local resource for parents, she continues. ‘Ultimately this is about supporting open, honest and healthy relationships in families, rather than the government giving out one message to parents and saying “tell this to your children, and they’ll never touch drugs”.’

The briefing also wants local authorities and commissioners to recognise the knock-on effects that cutting young people’s services can have – does she feel the full impact of cuts to wider services is appreciated or understood by government? ‘Understanding at government level doesn’t necessarily translate into local action, where the cuts are really being made. Evidence has suggested that Eric Pickles’ Best value statutory guidance, which told local authorities not to make disproportionate cuts to the voluntary and community sector, hasn’t been heeded,’ she says.

‘I think the point made by the Domino effects report (see news story, page 5) is the key argument – young people’s drug use is actually falling, and we risk undoing this if disproportionate cuts to young people’s services go ahead. If we can convince the government that this would be a demonstrable failure in one of its key aims from the drug strategy, we might see stronger directives.’  DDN

Briefing at www.adfam.org.uk

Places are still available for the DDN/Adfam Families First conference in Birmingham on 15 November. Details at: drinkanddrugsnews.com/adfam-conference-2012