It’s been an exciting few weeks for Mentor. First, along with our friends at Volte-Face, we launched the Making the Grade report into prevention, identification and responses to drug-related harm in Schools. Secondly, I was asked to give evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee in Parliament. Both were a real privilege to be part of and, most importantly, created the opportunity to talk about what works in prevention and how we as a society equip young people with the knowledge, skills and self-worth they need to navigate the challenges of growing-up free of drug-related harm.
Inevitably, a lot of the conversation was about schools and the vital role teachers and other staff play in great drug education. Alongside parents and carers, teachers are often the adults that young people spend the most time with. They develop highly trusting relationships and it is this trust that puts them in a good position to foster the honest, open conversations we know can have an impact with young people.
It is why we welcomed the Government’s decision to make drug education statutory from September 2020. However, as I put it to the Health and Social Care committee last week, statutory guidance risks being a missed opportunity to make genuine progress unless we get more ambitious, fast. Here are three things we could do to ensure the new guidelines mark the beginning of the step-change we all want and need to see in prevention.
Recognise that teachers are human. Many of them are struggling with high workloads, significant pressure from Government and parents, and a creeping ‘social-work’ role as austerity bites. Effective drug education will only happen if teachers have the training, resources and time to build their own confidence and skills, and those of their students. But at this moment in time it is unclear what, if any, additional resources have been allocated to support the implementation of the new guidelines. On top of this there is little guidance for schools in how to develop effective drug policies in partnership with students, parents and the local community and that dovetail with what is being taught in the classroom. If we are serious about reducing drug-related harm amongst the next generation then charities like Mentor must stand alongside teachers and schools to ensure they have all the support and guidance they need.
Ensure that drug education doesn’t end at the school gates. As I’ve already said schools are a vital component in effective prevention, but they can never be a complete solution. Prevention works best when the messages delivered in school are complemented and built upon at home. But we know from speaking to parents just how at sea many of them feel in this. Indeed, many were concerned that talking about drugs with their children could encourage drug use. This wall of silence that many young people face just adds to the stigma around drugs, meaning that when they do encounter challenging situations, they often feel unable to ask questions or seek help. By doing more to support parents and carers in building their own knowledge, skills and confidence, and by including them (and their children) in the design and content of drug education in schools, we have a far greater chance of reducing drug-related harm in the future.
Invest in community level support. For any number of reasons there are times when schools and families are not in a position to develop the trusting, stable relationships with children that underpin high-quality drug prevention. It is in these situations that communities and the support and identity they provide for many young people come into their own. For those young people facing the greatest challenges services such as youth clubs provide much more than diversionary activity, they become a safe-space to learn about themselves, build confidence and gain the vital social and life-skills they’ll need as they grow up. However, just at the time when young people need these services the most, they are being closed at a rate of knots. Council funding for youth services has dropped by almost two-thirds in the last decade. We need to reverse this, do more to link up youth centres, schools and families so fewer children fall through the gaps. And we must offer youth leaders more support, so they have access to the training and tools they need to talk about drugs with confidence and compassion.
I recognise just how far this Government has come in developing the statutory guidelines for drug education. It is now essential that we continue to move forward and ensure the guidelines are implemented with the proper support. I’m a natural optimist so remain hopeful that, with time we will see all of this and more in place so that all young people are given the best start in life.