Mentor UK’s CEO Boris Pomroy gave a speech at the House of Lords to mark our 20-year anniversary to our trustees, employees, supporters and new friends – an opportunity to acknowledge our achievements, and most importantly, our ambition for the future:
“Thank you. And a huge thank you to Sim, who has been the driving force behind Mentor for so many years and has been a sounding board, confidant and, at times, critical friend to me since I started five months ago.
We gather here this evening at a critical juncture, both in the life of Mentor and for young people in the UK.
This generation of young people – the post-millennials, the iGeneration, Gen Z – whatever label you want to give them – despite what you might hear or read in the news are a pretty amazing group.
They are demonstrably kinder. They work harder at school. And they are more risk-aware than perhaps any generation before them.
Educational attainment as a trend is continuing to improve, with more young people going on to study ‘A’ levels and then go on to University.
And even though they spend more time studying than previous generations, it doesn’t stop them getting out there and doing good. They are now the most likely of any age-group to volunteer for a good-cause.
When it comes to alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, they are consuming considerably less – and doing it later – than their parents did.
And when they get to the work place, they are more committed to working in jobs that have a positive impact on society.
As I said, a pretty amazing bunch.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges out there. And lots of them.
The majority believe it will be difficult to land a good job, even with all those qualifications. And the dream of owning their own home is just that, a dream.
Young people today also face a world that’s permanently switched on. Whilst they are best placed of all generations to deal with it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t exhausting sometimes. And for victims of bullying and abuse, there is simply no safe-space anymore.
If you are one of the four million children in the UK growing up in poverty, life becomes harder still. For those children growing up in care, with parents who have addiction issues, who are excluded from school, who are in the criminal justice system, who are at risk of joining a gang or who are just plain poor – their prospects aren’t good. And they know it.
Poverty. Lack of self-esteem. Lack of resilience. Lack of hope. These are all key drivers for harmful alcohol and other drug use.
And this is why high-quality drug education remains so vital. Last year, for the first time in a generation, alcohol and other drug use amongst young people rose. Whilst it may be too early to draw any broader conclusions from this single set of data, it should, at a minimum, act as a wake-up call to anyone who cares about the health and wellbeing of our next generation.
Over the last twenty years Mentor has prided itself on sharing the best in evidence-based practice, along with targeted interventions for the most vulnerable. This will not change.
But there are times when we have perhaps not listened enough to teachers, to parents and, most of all young people. And this must change. Academic study is vital in ensuring our programmes will really make a difference, but it counts for nothing if it is not married with insight from those who will be delivering and receiving those programmes.
Going forwards therefore we will ensure their voices have an active role at every level of the organisation, including at board level.
And this brings me to our new strategy. We are a small organisation with huge ambition, but we’ll only continue to have impact if we are brave enough to keep things simple and focussed.
Reducing young people’s exposure to alcohol and other drugs through policing may be a short-term answer, but it can never be the long-term solution. Drug-harm is a societal issue, which means we must tackle it as a society.
Our programmatic focus therefore will be on three fundamental pillars of society –families, schools and communities.
Families, in whatever form they come, remain the foundation of most young people’s lives. They are fundamental in the development of values. They create parameters for ambition and aspiration. They offer love and support in times of crisis. But parents find talking about drugs hard. They feel they don’t know enough about individual substances and often struggle to approach what can be a highly sensitive and challenging subject.
Despite their need, there is currently no drug and alcohol education resource in the UK designed specifically for parents. It is time we changed that.
Working alongside other charities, parent’s groups and (I hope) a number of brands, we will look to develop a digital space where parents can go to learn not just about the impact of specific drugs, but also how best to approach the subject with their children. Simple, straightforward advice where and when it is needed.
But parents can’t do everything, and schools will always have a vital role to play in the health and well-being of young people.
We believe every child should be given high quality drugs education regularly throughout their school life. Education that gives them not just the knowledge of what specific drugs might do and the potential consequences of taking them, but also develops the skills and self-confidence they need to know what to do in those challenging moments – perhaps when they are offered drugs for the first time, or when one of their friends is taking them.
This will never be achieved by scaring the hell out of young people – by sending in burly, gnarled men in the 50’s to tell their “story”. And it’ll not be achieved, as happened to me and when I was 15 – and is still happening today – by sending a policeman into my rural school with a suitcase full of drugs, most of which I’d never heard of – to tell me that if I ever so much as looked at these drugs, I’d end up in prison, dead or both.
Young people are too savvy for that. They recognise project-fear for what it is and simply switch off.
We need to get back to trusting them. Listening to them. Discussing the issue open and honestly.
Great drug education shouldn’t be a chemistry lesson. It should be an exploration of growing up in the world as it is today – of how best to overcome the challenges young people face and to embrace the many opportunities.
Working alongside teachers and young people we will transform our current Alcohol and Drug Education Prevention Information Service, creating a tool that gives both what they need – simple, practical, evidence-based advice and support delivered in a way that is engaging and ready to be used in the classroom.
We must also recognise there are some communities that will need extra support, often over sustained periods of time. Too often, if this arrives at all, it is in the form of a top-down ‘task-force’, flying in with clip-boards and ready-made solutions. With little or no regard for the people they are trying to help. If communities are to face-down the threat of illicit drugs and regain their civic pride, the people who live there must feel they are part of the solution. This means working from the grass-roots up, giving people a real voice in what happens in their communities and the tools and resources to implement change for themselves.
We will pilot a number of projects in London, Scotland and North-West England to show how, by working with young people and their parents within their community, it is possible to dramatically reduce the harm caused by alcohol and drugs and at the same time significantly improve the life-chances of those children. We’ll take the time to listen to people, understand what it is they love and hate about their community, and how they believe it could be improved. We will then work with the local community to make those improvements a reality – helping them reach out to other organisations, groups and individuals and linking up with schools, youth groups and families to offer drug and alcohol education that is bespoke and relevant.
The idea is simple – a more confident, knowledgeable and empowered community is one where the number of young people harmed by alcohol and other drugs is significantly reduced.
Families, Schools, Communities – long-term solutions based on what works.
But if we are really to succeed in significantly reducing drug-harm amongst young people, we must be more than the sum of our programmatic work. It will not be enough to create a great lesson plan, to train some teachers, or develop a glitzy new website for parents. We must be part of the conversation. So expect to hear more from us over the coming months and years.
We will work alongside teachers to campaign for more dedicated professional development time so they can develop their skills in this area. And then work to ensure the changes coming to the PSHE curriculum in 2020 are meaningful and are supported with adequate resources.
We will do more to champion young people and amplify their voice on the challenges they face as they grow up and the issues that matter most to them.
And, on that most challenging and polarising of subjects, drug policy and legislation, a topic so often dominated by the extremes, we will have the courage to enter the debate and ensure that the safety of young people is placed centre stage.
Let me finish with this.
At Mentor, we think young people are awesome. We love their passion and curiosity. We believe in their judgement and we trust their ability to shape their worlds as they grow up.
But we know from listening to them they face any number of challenges on the way to adulthood, including how to deal with exposure to drugs and alcohol. We know too that, the poorer the community they come from, the bigger these challenges become.
Our role is to be the trusted voice that shares knowledge and builds skills and self-confidence – and to help you as parents and teachers do the same. So young people are in a position to make the best choices for themselves, regardless of the challenges they might face.
To not judge. To not preach. To just give simple, practical advice and support wherever and whenever it is needed.
I’d like to finish by thanking you all for being here this evening – whether you are old friends or new. We have an exciting future ahead of us, one that has the power to ensure thousands more young people will go on to live happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives.
But we will only achieve this with you by our side.