You can tell there’s an election coming. UK drug policy has become increasingly prominent in recent weeks, with bans on legal highs, pledges of ‘progressive reform‘ – counter-accusations of being ‘soft on drugs’ – and promises to prioritise PSHE education in schools. Public Health England also released a useful guidance document on promoting the health and wellbeing of children and young people in schools, among a plethora of publications from government departments since the beginning of 2015.
With the alcohol and drug policies becoming something of an electoral battleground, there is a welcome opportunity to discuss what could be done to improve outcomes. In line with an array of other commentators, here are my top three priorities for the incoming administration to safeguard the health and wellbeing of children and young people.
1. Invest in what works
Last year’s Home Office report acknowledged that aspects of the UK drugs strategy, underpinned by hefty spending on enforcement, are not working. At the same time, a number of research centres – among them, the Dartington Social Research Unit – have built up compelling evidence that prevention and early intervention programmes can offer a more effective way of tackling alcohol and drug misuse. Dartington’s cost-benefit model demonstrates the outstanding value for money of certain preventive interventions, with some programmes returning over £50 to the taxpayer for every £1 spent.
The economic argument is highly relevant in these times of austerity: it’s no secret that we have diminishing resources, and so it is more important than ever to invest in strategies that work. Effective prevention represents the best way to achieve better outcomes for our young people as well as better returns for the taxpayer.
In recent years we have improved our understanding of what works in prevention; but as the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs advises, we still need to invest more in proven interventions and in strengthening the evidence of effectiveness. That’s why Mentor is thrilled to be managing the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions, which aims to ensure that evidence-based preventive programmes reach mainstream educational settings. We urge the incoming administration to ensure that prevention is at the heart of their alcohol and drugs strategy.
2. Empower schools
A lot of pre-election debate has centred on the status of PSHE education in schools, with politicians and commentators variously prioritising its importance and some advocating statutory status. Schools represent a real opportunity to reach large numbers of young people, imparting key information, fostering life skills and promoting positive attitudes in relation to alcohol and drugs. Currently school-based alcohol and drug education is constrained by a lack of curriculum time, an absence of teacher training, and limited central guidance and support. This is why Mentor supports the campaign for statutory status for PSHE: we believe that it would compel schools to invest more in the provision of PSHE, thus raising the standard of alcohol and drug education.
Last month I wrote that I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State for Education prioritise PSHE. However, unless the subject is allowed sufficient curriculum time and underpinned by renewed teacher training and access to effective teaching resources, we are unlikely to see the improvements she hopes for. Four out of five teachers would like more classroom materials to deliver effective alcohol and drug education; Mentor-ADEPIS is ‘filling the gap’ in some respects, but achieving quality standards nationwide requires practical support and leadership to match the political rhetoric. By continuing to neglect alcohol and drug education, we are missing the best opportunity to inform and educate children and young people.
3. Listen to young people
Mentor’s seventeen-year history demonstrates the value of listening to and working with young people in alcohol and drug prevention. The success of our programmes is founded on a needs-led approach that places young people at the heart of design and delivery. Too often this is neglected: a recent example being the government’s anti-drinking messages, which are “irrelevant” to some young binge drinkers.
In youth-focused policy, too, initiatives are far more likely to be effective if young people are part of the process and fully involved in the decisions that impact their lives. While many organisations attempt to hear the voice of children and young people, it often appears tokenistic and the results are unsatisfactory. We believe that this is down to ‘know-how,’ which is why we developed Youth Insight to refine best practice in youth engagement and to embed a legacy of involving young people in local and national policy.
My final plea to the new government is to learn from the third sector’s experience of youth engagement, to hear the voice of young people on key issues, and to sustain their involvement for years to come. This will enable policymakers to devise better, more relevant measures to support the future health and wellbeing of children and young people in the UK.