School drug education and the DrugInfo Clearinghouse
Drug use is entrenched in Australian culture, and, our young people, regardless of parentage, income, background or inclination, can come into contact with a range of drugs before they graduate from school. The use of drugs is celebrated and encouraged by some of our most powerful institutions, and many of our mores.
Depending on the drug, and the individual, drug use can be regarded as a matter of personal choice, of morality, or of ethics, and also as a public health issue, a crime, or a form of recreation. Schoolies Week and the Melbourne Cup Carnival are two examples of the way in which alcoholic excess is not only tolerated, but actively encouraged by otherwise responsible adults.
According to the 2002 statistics just released by the Commonwealth Government, the use of alcohol by school-aged students has steadied in recent years: around 90% had tried alcohol by the age of 14, and around 70% had consumed alcohol in the week preceding the survey. Of current drinkers, 31% of 15-year-olds and 44% of 17-year-olds had consumed alcohol at levels the National Health and Medical Research Council defines as high-risk. Illicit drug use had also stabilized, with a slight decrease in the use of cannabis, and no change in the proportion of students using ecstasy (5%) between 1999 and 2002.
This reality helps to explain why drug education is an ongoing need in our schools. It is also a reason why drug education is a challenging topic for teachers to address. Issues and conflicts of personal and social responsibility are involved. But the role schools play is important and valuable because drug use is at the heart of many social and cultural problems, including the road toll, violence, and health costs. Schools can claim some of the credit for the massive reduction in smoking and drink-driving that has occurred over the life of the last generation. Those changes have saved thousands of lives, and they prove that cultural change around legal drugs is possible.
School communities typically address drug education via the formal curriculum, and by developing the personal capacities and qualities of students. They are aware of the importance of ensuring that schooling is a positive experience, and that schools are a place where young people can develop their talents and interests free of unwelcome social pressure. A variety of 'pastoral' approaches, including mentoring, peer support, anti-bullying programs and the like, are employed by schools to create supportive environments for students.
More formal programs of drug education are conducted by teachers across primary and secondary classrooms, in which students learn about the appropriate and safe use of prescription and pharmaceutical drugs, the issues surrounding the use of tobacco and alcohol, and the ever increasing array of illegal substances.
Both forms of education are necessary, as drug use is not confined to those who are exposed to the many risk factors, or to those who lack the protective factors. Young people who are high on confidence and exuberance, who believe they are in charge, are also vulnerable to taking risks with drugs.
Schools can be confident that drug education can have a positive impact on students. The School Health and Alcohol Harm Project in Western Australia, conducted by Curtin University, has demonstrated that a carefully implemented education program can reduce alcohol use, and the harm resulting from young people's alcohol consumption.
However, it is often difficult for educators who are not trained specifically in drug education to know where to start. This is where initiatives such as the Australian Drug Foundation's DrugInfo Clearinghouse can be very useful. The Clearinghouse aims to provide a 'one-stop' for drug prevention information, and brings together a wealth of resources and research so that educators can base their work on solid evidence. Their latest resource, Early Intervention in Schools, provides a comprehensive overview of drug education for teachers, health educators, local government, parents, youth workers and the wider community. This free pack, consisting of a newsletter and fact sheets, provides support for teachers, and contains information on how to choose a school and a research report summarising new drug education initiatives. It is available on the DrugInfo Clearinghouse website, or by calling their information desk on 1300 85 85 84, or as part of a DrugInfo Clearinghouse membership.
The DrugInfo Clearinghouse is funded by the Victorian Government and the Premier's Drug Prevention Council (PDPC), and managed by the Australian Drug Foundation. Use the links below to access online versions of each resource, and download copies for distribution, or email them to colleagues.
School-based programs and policies that have an impact on harmful drug use
Subject HeadingsDrug education