Mentor UK has just finished up our Real-Life Skills (RLS) pilot, run in partnership with six agencies in Blackpool. Our partners on the pilot included 2 Academy schools, 2 Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), Aspired Futures – an Alternative Education provider – and the community focused Blackpool Boys and Girls club. Mentor received funding from the Home Office’s Drug Misuse intervention fund to deliver the RLS pilot over a three-month period, beginning in January 2019.
Our staff have thoroughly enjoyed working with the young people they have met in Blackpool, as well as having the opportunity to build effective working relationships with a range of partners in the area. Running RLS in Blackpool has been an informative experience for our programmes team. It has given us a real sense of some of the challenges that towns like Blackpool are facing when it comes to alcohol and other drugs and what it would take to implement effective prevention work there alongside some of the fantastic youth-focused work already being done.
To finish up the twelve-week period of the pilot, we spoke to some of the young people who had been involved with RLS about how they’d found the programme. Mentor worked especially closely with Aspired Futures throughout the RLS pilot and so some of the young people who gave us really engaged feedback were from this service. Aspired Futures provide long-term therapeutic services for especially vulnerable young people in Blackpool, many of whom are from chaotic family backgrounds or in care.
B, an 11-year-old who had participated throughout the 12 weeks of the project, made clear to us he thought the programme had been helpful. But he pointed out that he thought young people should have access to engaging drug education earlier than 11, potentially from the age of 8, when he felt some children from chaotic homes start to encounter alcohol, tobacco and potentially other drugs. He also thought that all alcohol should come with a visible health warning attached.
Some of the young people we spoke to had already received drug education at school before participating in the RLS pilot. But they told us they found RLS more engaging than their classes at school. This was partly because RLS sessions are run interactively and each session goes in depth into a specific topic, while at the same time building on the previous session and reinforcing content across the 12 weeks. Because many of the children who participated in the programme live with learning disabilities, they and the staff they work with felt that the interactive, iterative nature of RLS worked well to engage their interest and helped them remember information and skills they learned as the programme progressed.
Finishing up a pilot run of a programme like this one gives our staff time to reflect on lessons learned and, perhaps most importantly, ways to take these lessons forward in future work. For schools and PRUs in some of the most deprived areas of Blackpool, implementing effective drug and other health education as part of the regular curriculum can be difficult simply because they face the day-to-day challenge of managing disruptive student behaviour and delivering the core curriculum.
In these situations, our programmes team found that Brief Alcohol Interventions with students were often the most effective way of having an impact, as consistent attendance from the same students was not guaranteed across the 12-weeks of the RLS pilot. Because the funding for the RLS pilot was for a three-month period only, it was similarly difficult to find the time with already over-worked school staff to run skills-training sessions. These sessions were intended to provide school staff with tools and training to deliver drug education in school settings themselves, drawing on Mentor’s experience in this area.
In this sense, one of the main lessons that Mentor took away from running this RLS pilot was that schools – especially those operating in deprived areas of towns like Blackpool – need far more support to up-skill staff and implement, over the long-run, high quality drug education. This is especially true when these schools are engaged with students who may already be from chaotic home lives and/or be disengaged from learning. Drug and other health education in these contexts cannot be thought of as a desirable ‘add-on’ or luxury. It needs to be systematically worked in through a whole-school approach and allow staff to be responsive to the specific needs and challenges their students face.