The “scandal” exposed by the Daily Record last week – that schools in Scotland suspended or expelled two pupils per day in 2013-14 – may not have been widely reported, but should serve as a timely reminder of the enduring challenge presented by youth alcohol and drug misuse as politicians lay out their election priorities.
The newspaper employed Freedom of Information legislation to request figures for 2013-14 from each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities. They found 460 cases were recorded over a school year that lasted on average 190 days – a daily figure of 2.4 suspensions or expulsions for “alcohol abuse” and “substance abuse.”
It should be noted, as Barbara O’Donnell of Alcohol Focus Scotland pointed out, that the number of young people who are drinking, smoking or using illicit substances is on a continual downward trend in Scotland. According to last year’s SALSUS survey (Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey), one in ten 15-year-olds used drugs in the last month; even fewer are “regular smokers”; and less than a fifth of students drank alcohol in the last week.
Nevertheless, the figures raise some concern about the extent to which schools and other agencies are able to protect young people from the harms of alcohol and drug misuse, and to promote healthy lifestyle choices. Although the numbers are decreasing, 460 young people with sanctions on record – potentially disaffected from school, with increased likelihood of developing alcohol and/or drug dependency in adult life – is too many.
While we should not demand too much of teachers, one role of schools is to provide age-appropriate information on the social context and consequences of drugs, and to offer opportunity for discussion and consideration, empowering young people to make positive decisions around alcohol and other drugs. The Scottish government statement quoted in the Daily Record assures readers that they are making sure that children and young people receive “substance misuse education,” but can they do more to enable schools and teachers to fulfil this key component of education?
In 2007, an evaluation of the effectiveness of drug education in Scottish schools concluded that “more can be done to enhance its effectiveness.” The key constraints outlined in the report – an absence of teacher training, a lack of guidance on evidence-based practice – remain unaddressed.
Mentor is a vanguard of positive change in drug education and prevention. In 2013, the Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention Information Service (ADEPIS) was launched as a platform for sharing information and resources for schools and practitioners; ADEPIS is now acknowledged as the leading source of evidence-based information and resources for alcohol and drug education and prevention. Earlier this year, Mentor was granted funding to integrate the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions (CAYT) into ADEPIS, to manage and further develop the CAYT repository as a valuable source of quality-assured impact studies and effective evidence-based preventive programmes for educational settings. Through devising and disseminating resources for evidence-based practice and trialling proven early intervention strategies such as the Good Behaviour Game, we are beginning to embed evidence-based drug education and prevention throughout the UK.
If Scotland hopes to realise its aspiration to be the best place in the world to grow up, we cannot continue to neglect the magnitude of youth alcohol and drug misuse, which continues to have such a disproportionate impact on the lives of some young people. We need to invest more in quality drug education and evidence-based prevention, to ensure that young people have the skills and confidence to make positive decisions and to realise their potential free from the harms of alcohol and drug misuse.
With several parties prioritising prevention and early intervention in their election manifestos, there is growing acceptance of the need to tackle the causes, not the symptoms, of alcohol and drug misuse. We hope that the Scottish government too will place greater emphasis on this central issue, empowering schools and other agencies to contribute to reducing the number of young people whose lives are affected by alcohol and drug misuse.