Leave the drugs war to cartoons and cops

May 4, 2007

Schools are failing to change pupils' attitudes to narcotics and should instead focus on education, claims Richard Ives

The bold, optimistic claims made for drug education are not confirmed by research. A paucity of positive evidence has led to calls for a rethink. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the independent body set up to advise the Government, having demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the provision of information in changing drug-related behaviour recommended that the focus should be on the provision of information instead. Schools should not enlist in the "drugs war". Far better to help students to make a critical examination of "drugs".

Irresponsible? Young people need to know about the dangers of drugs. They need information. But drugs information is available to young people from a range of sources.

Consider the cartoon show The Simpsons . It has tackled drugs issues in many episodes. Some examples: Barney sees a video of himself drinking and is so shocked that he gives up. Marge drinks spiked water and trips. Homer tries medical marijuana and joins the campaign to keep it legal. Marge gets addicted to gambling. Bart and Milhouse get high on an all-syrup Squishee sold at the Kwik-E-Mart. Marge tests positive for crack and PCP. Homer cleans the basement, inhales the fumes of cleaning products, trips out, and is attacked by product logos. Bart is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and must take a drug that boosts his attention span. There are many more examples.

What characterises these drug references, apart from the humour, is their accuracy and level of detail. Any one of these would provide a fantastic starting point for class discussion about drugs issues.

Yet what do schools actually do? The cartoon series South Park also has a lot to say on the subject. The South Park boys have a sophisticated approach to drugs and drug abuse, but the messages they get from school are presented as laughable and pathetic. For example, Mr McKay, the school counsellor, harangues the class about drugs, endlessly repeating "drugs are bad". In the episode, "Butt Out", anti-smoking education by external providers is mercilessly lampooned. Teachers to whom I've shown these clips sigh in recognition.

In another South Park episode, Stan's parents try to scare him into not using drugs. But in an earlier episode, he is presented as knowing a lot about them. When Chef asks the boys if they know why "drugs are bad", Stan has a good answer. And when the boys meet "Towlie", a drug-using robotic towel, they hang out with him and help him while refusing his (repeated) offer of drugs.

With sophisticated storylines such as this, it is no wonder that worthy, good intentioned-but-boring education for prevention fails to make an impact on drug use. But the wrong conclusion would be that school drug education needs "spicing up".

Providing accurate information is important, and the Government's Frank campaign provides general facts to anyone who wants it. Schools have a role in educating children about some aspects of drugs. But when it comes to individual decisions about drug use, classrooms are not the place to communicate complex messages that should be tailored for individual circumstances.J For me, the most significant part of the ACMD report, and the bit that got the whole-hearted endorsement of the profession's "trade association", the Drug Education Forum, is the call for more drug education out of school.

It's here, working with potentially vulnerable young people and with those using drugs, in advice and guidance contexts, that appropriate one-to-one and small-group discussions can address the specific issues that concern these young people. It's not fighting the drugs war, but it is reaching the casualties.

So let's focus resources on these areas and accept that schools can't prevent drug use. Let them stick to what they do best: just education - such as the history of drugs, the role of drugs in society and drugs advertising. And let's give schools time to address the personal, social and health curriculum without the distraction of having to demonstrate drug-related outcomes.

And remember what Chef tells the South Park boys: "Look children, this is all I'm gonna say about drugs: stay away from them. There's a time and a place for everything, and it's called college."

Richard Ives is an honorary research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at London Metropolitan University and founder and managing director of Educari, a company that assists professionals who work with children and young people. He is a speaker at the Unhooked Thinking conference to be held in Bath, May 9-11, www.unhookedthinking.com

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