Drug Education News

News and views from the Drug Education Forum

Class A lesson in the war against drugs

The Times has a story about the Manchester Coroner, Nigel Meadows, who tells them:

Drug education doesn’t seem to be working.

By which he appears to mean that 2007 there’s was a 3 per cent rise in drug related deaths in England and Wales over the previous year.

Leaving aside the question of whether it’s appropriate to ask drug education to keep drug deaths stable (or to reduce them) let’s move on to look at how Mr Meadows thinks things should be done.

The Times say:

He wants schoolchildren to witness the devastation drugs cause; to “educate and inform” by showing them what he sees every day, sparing none of the details. This is only the second time he has hosted a session here (he carried out a test run in Portsmouth) . He admits the administration involved means that it has been hard finding schools to take part – but he hopes that it will become a regular fixture.

Today, he is playing host to a group of 14 youngsters, all aged 15 and 16, who have come to view the pictures, sit in on an inquest and hear from parents who have lost children to drug-related deaths. As the pupils are finding out, it’s an emotionally charged approach and one that doesn’t fail to make an impression.

It’s a ‘scared straight’ programme with a twist that the coronor isn’t waiting for the young people he talks to having problems with the law.  You might remember that this approach has – despite Mr Meadow’s claims to the contrary – been tried before and has been put over the hurdles by social scientists.  The last time I wrote about it I was highlighting a book on effective trials in health, education and social science, the authors said:

‘Scared Straight’ is a widely used intervention in North America. Juvenile offenders are taken to meet long-term prisoners in order to deter them from further crime. A recent version being offered in the UK is to take juvenile drug users to prisons to meet jailed drug offenders. A series of RCTs from North America was undertaken and summarised in a systematic review. The review demonstrated that the ‘Scared Straight’ programme actually increased the risk of offending in the juveniles in the intervention group compared with juveniles in the control group (Petrosino et al., 2002)

While the Times doesn’t let Mr Meadows get it all his own way – there’s a quote from someone from Addaction pointing out that shock tactics don’t have much of an evidence base – it’s largely an uncritical article.  The pay off is a quote from an assistant head teacher:

In line with government policy, his school offers drugs education in classtime, delivering messages prescribed by the Department for Education. The inquest visit is is a much more dynamic approach, Braithwaite says. “It’s powerful stuff, I’ve never seen anything like this. It is much more valuable than anything I could present in the classroom. I guarantee none of these children would want to dabble in drugs now.”

It may be powerful, but it’s not evidenced, or effective.


Filed under: drug education, scare tactics

5 Responses

  1. Stephen Hounsom says:

    What an arrogant view, I have been working in the drug & alcohol field form many years & my work takes me into schools where I deliver drug & alcohol awareness training to all age groups.
    I do not preach, I do not tell them what they should or should not do, I tell them the truth about drugs & hope that they make the right choices in life.
    One of the most effective tools in my arsenal is pictures of the grim side of the affects drugs can have on a person’s health & appearance. I guess this comes under the heading ‘shock tactics’ or to quote another rediculous term I’ve heard ‘health terorism’ but I was told recently by 6th year representatives at a Health Promoting Schools inspection, that the pupils wanted more ‘Shock Tactics’ as it is what they found most effecive & was more likely to put them
    off taking drugs.
    It may not be evidenced to your satisfaction but to say it is not effective is blinkered & arrogant.
    Surely we should be using everything we can to put the message across in drug education not get bitchy when someone else tries something slightly radical.
    Lets face it what the education authorities have been so far is hardly a rip roaring success.

  2. Hello Stephen, thanks for your comment.

    Radicalism isn’t the problem, but using tactics that have been proven (time and again) to have a detrimental effect doesn’t seem helpful to me.

  3. richard says:

    Stephen, you say that: “the pupils wanted more ‘Shock Tactics’ as it is what they found most effecive & was more likely to put them
    off taking drugs.”

    How do they know? When, several years later, they are in a situation where they have the opportunity to take drugs, surely some relevant skills would be more useful than a sense of fear?

  4. Stephen Hounsom says:

    Hi Richard,
    I was merely reporting what the young people say to us that, while education & facts are very important, they say that it’s only when they actually see the results that it comes together. I also work on a lot of out of school projects & the same can be said there, we have recently been stopped from using graphic pictures of STIs & I have to say that most of the young people think this is a stupid reaction, for the same reason as above.
    I personly beleive in listening to the young people themselms as to what method of awareness raising works most effectivly instead of the old fashion view that only we know what’s what. As for the first comment of ‘using tactics that have been proven (time and again) to have a detrimental effect’ that leaves me a bit puzzled? perhaps you could show the evendence for that statement.
    Call me old fashioned but I believe in horses for courses, what works with one group may not with another but surely it’s better to have a wide range of resourses & methods.
    Either way, it’s always easier to sit back criticise than to get on & try something.

  5. Hi Stephen, thanks for continuing the debate.

    The design of the blog isn’t as good as it could be in showing hyperlinks in the comments, but if you click here and here you’ll see some of the evidence I’m talking about. There’s more if you’re interested and searching the archives of this blog for the word “shock” or “fear” will give you some of it.

    I certainly agree that drug education should listen to what young people say – it’s an important principle of drug prevention – but that needs to be tempered with the evidence of what particular interventions might do.

    Young people are consistent in asking to be told what it’s “really like” and we shouldn’t shy away from describing the harms that drugs cause, including death. However, I think we also need to avoid suggesting that this is inevitable, or even likely, and we do need to remind them (and ourselves) that the majority of young people don’t take illegal drugs.

    In terms of effectiveness the international evidence seems to suggest that a skills based curriculum and one which adopts normative messages – click here for more on what a social norms approach looks like – are the most likely to have an impact.

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