What works for schools

When it comes to effective alcohol and drug education, we know what works - we've spent 20 years researching, testing and evaluating different approaches. Here's what we've found.

1. Universal drug education programmes (aimed at all children and young people) in schools can reduce their harmful drinking, smoking and cannabis use.

A large number of drug prevention programmes for schools have been tested. Some have been subject to randomised controlled trials. Importantly, in these trials, schools or classes are assigned at random to the intervention and control groups, so the results are not biased by other characteristics of schools that choose to take part.

2. The most effective approaches are based on social influences and life skills.

Effective approaches:

  • correct misperceptions about how common and acceptable substance misuse is among young people (normative education);
  • teach interpersonal skills to help handle realistic situations where alcohol or drugs are present;
  • emphasise interactive learning and practising skills.

Typically, programmes take place over 10 or more lessons, reflecting and building on what went before. As well as initial training for teachers, ongoing support is often provided. (However, other more concentrated approaches can also be valuable – see below).

Examples include the Life Skills Training programme, developed in the United States, and Unplugged, tested in a large-scale evaluation across several European countries. Learn more about Mentor’s UK pilot of Unplugged.

3. Schools can also reduce young people’s risk of substance misuse with programmes focusing on school ethos, attachment to school and the learning environment.

Young people who are disengaged from school are at higher risk of substance misuse, so some programmes focus on the school’s ethos or classroom management to reduce risk.

The Good Behaviour Game (GBG) is for primary school pupils, and therefore has no overt link with drugs or alcohol. Children are motivated to regulate their behaviour and to stay calm and focused in the classroom. Participation in GBG can significantly reduce the number of disruptive children who later, as adolescents, drop out of school or engage in risky substance use. Learn more at gbguk.org.

4. Some approaches are ineffective and may even be counterproductive.

Accurate information is important but providing information by itself does not have a significant impact on young people’s drug use, as it does not address the social and emotional basis of decision-making.

Approaches based on arousing fear or disgust also seem to be ineffective, and risk triggering defensive responses.

Bringing ex-users into the classroom is another tactic that is sporadically popular. There is little evidence that this approach works, and it may be counterproductive – young people may conclude, for example, that the negative effects of drug addiction are merely temporary.

5. Programmes are cost-effective – even with modest impact

Alcohol and drug use by young people carries immediate costs to the young people themselves and to wider society.

Early onset of substance use is also linked with increased dependency and subsequent health problems in adulthood.

Universal drug and alcohol prevention programmes do not need to have dramatic impacts to be cost-effective. For example, modelling for NICE concluded that an alcohol misuse prevention programme in schools costing £75 million with a 1.4% reduction in alcohol consumption amongst young people would be a cost-effective public health intervention.

Read about the arguments for early intervention from Public Health England in Alcohol and drugs prevention, treatment and recovery: why invest?

6. There are gaps in our knowledge

This is partly because many evidence-based programmes have not been trialled in the UK. Mentor is working to introduce into the UK some of the programmes that have been shown to be so effective in other countries, such as the Good Behaviour Game and Unplugged.

For more detailed information about these programmes’ effectiveness, read our paper on drug prevention in schools:

Drug prevention programmes in schools: What is the evidence? (629.0 KB)

Learn more about what works for schools