The Current State Of Drug, Alcohol And Addiction Education In The UK


You can only change something if you truly understand what the current situation is like and where things need improvement, this article aims to achieve exactly this.

With drug-related deaths at an all-time high and new drugs entering the black market all the time, drug education for young people is more important than ever.

This is especially true when you consider that around 1 in 5 (18%) of 16-24 year olds have taken illicit drugs in the last year. That’s equivalent to 1.1 million young people. What’s more, 10% of 11-15 year olds have taken illicit drugs in the last year and 15% have tried drugs at least once in their life.

With this in mind, education surrounding drug and alcohol addiction, or any form of addiction, is vital for keeping young people safe and allowing them to make fully informed choices about their lives and even become actively aware of triggers or warning signs which may help them to avoid misusing substances and becoming addicted in the first place.

However, the current state of drug education in the UK is severely lacking, with children getting an average of just one hour per year for drugs and alcohol education, according to an Ofsted report and research by Mentor Adepis. 18% had not learned about drugs, alcohol and tobacco until aged 14 and 5% hadn’t been taught anything by the time they left school.

Considering the figures regarding drug and alcohol use in under 18s, the fact that few people wait until they are 18 to begin drinking and 4 out of 5 people have tried alcohol by the time they are 15, this is most likely too late to raise the important issues surrounding substance use and addiction. Pupils also report the education to be irrelevant, repetitive, boring and out of touch with the way children and young people live in today’s world.

Drug education can be delivered in schools through a subject called Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) that includes a basic requirement to teach children about drugs, alcohol and addiction, among with other topics.

However, there is very little guidance as to what the exact content of this should be. There is no set provider, recommendations or specific messages/syllabus that needs to be included in the modern curriculum. The vagueness and inconsistencies of the guidelines means that across the country, the education delivered to children is inconsistent and without structure.

This results in a postcode lottery, where kids are receiving better or worse education depending on where they live and which particular school they attend. So, whilst there are pockets of good practice, drug education nationally is in an extremely poor state.


The 2012 Ofsted Report

Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills is a non-ministerial department of the UK government, reporting to Parliament. Ofsted is responsible for inspecting a range of educational institutions, including state schools and some independent schools.

In the aforementioned Ofsted report based on inspections of PSHE classes in 2012 and online survey data, 40% of the schools inspected had PSHE education that was inadequate or required improvement. The report highlighted the following:

Most understood the dangers of substance misuse but not always in relation to personal safety, particularly with regard to alcohol.

These deficiencies in learning result in part from inadequacies in subject-specific training and support for PSHE education teachers, particularly in the teaching of sensitive and controversial issues.

2012 Ofsted Report

However, whilst the quality of teaching suffered from lack of subject-specific training it was the outcomes that were the most worrying. It was noticed that outcomes were “often less robust for PSHE education than for other subjects”. The reported added:

In too many schools, teachers did not check or build on pupils’ previous knowledge, which resulted in them repeating topics, and they had lower expectations of the quality of pupils’ work in PSHE education than for the same pupils in other subjects.

There was some praise for outside speakers, but also concerns as to whether their methods were evidence-based. If we look at outside speakers for drug education in particular, there are certainly disparities as to their approaches.


External Speakers To Educate Young People About Substance Use And Addiction

Some schools invite speakers from drug and alcohol treatment services, recovering addicts, awareness/treatment groups or charities to engage with their pupils, which means that they can give accurate information, answer questions and engage them in debates like ‘What is problematic drug use?, what are triggers and warning signs of substance misuse and addiction, what makes people susceptible to addiction, the science and psychology surrounding addiction, what treatment options are available and how to access them and others.

Currently however, these external speakers or drug treatment workers are never able to access all the children or for any length of time that means their teaching will have any significant impact. It then becomes seen as a topic that’s covered simply to satisfy tick boxes on forms rather than talking to them to provide real, valuable knowledge and information to take forward with them in life.

Instead, for example, they might be given half of a single lesson (30-45 minutes), if that. And whilst some schools bring these treatment workers in, many are often reluctant to invite them in at all, because they would rather ignore the issue of drug and alcohol addiction.

Often treatment workers who are eager to give a lesson are met with “We don’t have a drug problem here” or say that “it’s something that they’ll learn themselves when they’re older”. This, combined with the fact that services themselves often have no requirement on their contract to give drug education classes, the prevalence of this kind of education is fairly low.


The Use Of Police Officers To Talk About Addiction In Schools & Education Facilities

More often than not, schools will invite the police in to talk about drugs or teachers will simply give their own take (and irrelevant personal opinions). The issue with both these options is that it often means those delivering the information do not have a great deal of knowledge on drugs, alcohol or addiction themselves or on how to discuss them with young people.

The police being involved with addiction education also means that the focus is too much on criminality or punishment and not on any of the other important aspects of addictions that they should be aware of, such as the fact that addiction isn’t a choice and is a health condition, mental health, dependency and acknowledging the simple honest truth that sometimes using drugs or drinking alcohol are fun.

Using police officers then cause an unconscious link that addiction is a criminal issue rather than a health issue and that if they were to speak out about their or someone else’s addiction, that they’d be arrested or punished, instead of coming forward and receiving the care and support that they need and deserve.

It is often particularly lacking in proper information on addiction and in discussing issues like safe and healthy use, peer pressure, harm minimisation, needle exchanges, warning signs, preventative measures and mental health among others. It often ends up more of a scaremongering session than an open and honest discussion about addiction, treatment options and how to overcome it.

And this is key to why drug and alcohol addiction education is so poor – scare tactics have time and again been shown not to work. It seems that all it does it put kids off who were already unlikely to take drugs anyway, but leaves the rest still wondering and it is often this mystery that young people find intriguing about recreational drugs and steers them towards experimenting.

Those who don’t care about criminality or think they can get away with drug use are not going to be affected by messages purely based around legality and being told not to do it. Many actually push back against it as a form of defiance and yet, this message seems to be the only tactic being used nationwide. One treatment worker told Drink ‘n’ Drugs that they had even seen Daily Mail articles being given to children in class as part of their “drug education”.

What often happens is that many children, teenagers or young adults who were given the message that ‘drugs are evil’ will still try drugs at some point. Once they try it and realise that the scare tactics are not the whole story, they’ll cease to believe anything the establishment says about drugs and alcohol and disregard “official” drug education, research findings, important information like recognising the warning signs and how to access treatment options entirely. This can be dangerous as it leads them to get their information from unreliable and even damaging or harmful sources.

There can be a strong comparison made here to sex education. Vast amounts of evidence show that abstinence-only education is far less effective than more comprehensive sex education in reducing teen pregnancy and rates of STIs. We have come on in leaps and bounds in terms of accepting that fact in this country, yet many still take the archaic view that the only way to prevent children from taking drugs problematically is just telling them not to do it.

So, whilst it is perfectly natural to want to just tell kids not to do drugs or abuse alcohol, it doesn’t actually work and people have to decide for themselves what they want or don’t want to do – in other words, the decision to abstain has to come internally from the individual, who requires the latest information to make a decision as to whether they want to use drugs or drink alcohol.

Telling people that if they take drugs, they’ll die or go to jail is the sex education equivalent of just telling people not to have sex because if they do they will get an STI or be pregnant. It doesn’t eliminate the desire to have sex, just like telling people not to do drugs does not eliminate the desire or curiosity to try them, use them recreationally or even continue using substances when their substance use is causing them negative consequences within their life.


The Burying Your Head In The Sand Approach To Education

This “just say no” attitude and lack of comprehensive, relevant and reliable education is partly a product of prohibition, whereby schools and other organisations feel that by discussing drugs, alcohol, addiction or giving harm reduction information and advice equates to endorsing drug or alcohol use, which of course it doesn’t. And yet, many parents are glad that this is the approach because they don’t want their kids to know about drugs or addiction.

However, this “burying your head in the sand” method of thinking only causes greater issues down the road in later life when their pupils or children misuse substances or develop addictions and are incapable of seeking help, support and treatment, due to lacking the important information that they were sheltered from in their younger years.

And yet, comprehensive drug education has the potential to significantly reduce harms associated with drug use in young people and we can strive towards this without a change in the legal status of drugs.

Coffee Shop In Amsterdam

Substance & Addiction Education In Other Countries

Contrast the UK’s current failing system to drug education in the Netherlands for example, where drugs are still illegal (even cannabis is technically illegal), but people talk about drugs in a more sensible, respectful and open way.

In the Netherlands, they often show children videos from a YouTube channel called DrugsLab, which is part of a TV programme called ‘Spuiten en Slikken’ (Shot and Swallow). These videos even include people taking various illegal drugs on camera to show the effects, aftermath and consequences of taking them.

Although cannabis is not legal in the Netherlands, there is a ‘tolerance policy’ (gedoogbeleid) , which means the law is not enforced in relation to the retail sale of small quantities for personal use in cannabis cafés known as ‘coffeeshops’.

Parents in the Netherlands often offer to smoke joints with their teenagers who are curious about cannabis, which of course takes away the intrigue and excitement of it. This means that despite the obvious presence of cannabis and coffee shops, problematic cannabis use in young people is lower than it is in the UK.

This is mirrored by a similar phenomenon in France and Italy, whereby children who grow up in families where they are allowed an alcoholic drink with dinner develop a healthier relationship with it and therefore experience fewer alcohol-related problems later in life, than children whose parents were strict. Those who were kept away from alcohol sometimes end up drinking excessively once they are free to do whatever they like as they lack the respect and control that other young people gain from a young age in other countries.


Resistance In Schools For Professional, Experienced, External Help

Drug education organisations in the UK have found schools to be particularly resistant to harm reduction information. Ros Stone from drugand.me, a harm reduction website, say that they are able to conduct workshops at universities, but would ideally like to get information to children at a younger age, considering that 90% of students had tried drugs including alcohol before arriving at university.

Even us here at Drink ‘n’ Drugs, have problems accessing schools to educate their students about substances and addiction and are met with resistance and or ignorance. However, it is very difficult to get this information into schools because, whilst PSHE teachers are often keen, heads of year and other people in the school leadership tend to override this.

The school establishment don’t want to admit that kids in their school may be taking drugs or may one day become addicts and would rather bury their heads in the sand.

The attitude held by schools about drug and alcohol education seems to be reflected in their other policies regarding drugs and alcohol. A study in 2010 collected qualitative data from students (14-15 years old) and teachers about drug education at their secondary school, as well as the school’s wider policies and practices relating to drugs. The results were summarised by saying:

A recurring theme was that students reported having received little or no genuine, valuable drugs or addiction education. They also noted that the vast majority could not remember having had any at their secondary school.

Young people wanted their school to provide them with more information. Teachers recognised that schools’ drugs and addiction policies were rarely implemented in practice and that drugs education was not a priority.

Schools also appear to be adopting new strategies based on surveillance and targeting to control students’ drug use. In some cases referrals to a drugs counsellor were coercive and appeared to merely replace classroom-based drugs education.

National Library Of Medicine 2010

The study therefore highlighted the gap between drug policies and practice which still isn’t being filled by those with real life, personal experiences of substance use, addiction and recovery.


What Is The Funding Situation like?

In addition to the attitudes of schools towards drug and addiction education, on national level, funding for schools has been slashed by the UK government in recent, consecutive years and will continue to fall relative to inflation if the current trajectory continues.

This affects all aspects of school life and includes PSHE. With regards to the school budget, it is hard to unpick the direct effects it will have on PSHE alone, but with schools under pressure to get top grades, classes for which there are no GCSE qualifications on offer may suffer. In other words, it depends on the whim of the school whether their pupils will receive drug information, and if they want to do the absolute minimum about drugs, whether this is due to attitude or resources, they can!

When it comes to treatment services, who are often keen to provide education, whether they can often it depends on their local authority and the individual schools. Public Health England (PHE) allocates budgets to treatment providers based on need in a given area and then charities like Addaction come forward and apply for the money.

To add insult to injury, PHE awarded Mentor UK a 3 year contract to expand on substance and addiction education, yet they have now ceased to exist, again leaving our students and schools high and dry, once again!

Each area has a totally different set of requirements, some of which include carrying out drug education in schools, but others have no requirement for education programmes at all – commissioning services don’t take it into consideration. On the whole, resources are generally allocated to treatment for those with complex substance misuse, which is vital work, but also means that education and prevention gets ignored. This is despite the fact that it is actually a good use of resources, due to its preventative nature, as it prevents possible future addicts entering treatment services, again saving money and ultimately, saving lives!


How Governments See Addiction Education & Funding

The problem is that governments tend not to be overly keen on preventative work because the benefits will only be felt years later when many government officials want instant results, benefits and outcomes. So because of this, it’s hard to evidence, to justify and to judge how successful it is both long term and short term.

What’s more, government is given a five-year term and as such, they usually want quick fixes to be able to show off their successes to the electorate and government opposition. This is why commissioners focus so strongly on the number of people leaving treatment services and tends to ignore or purposefully overlook other statistics or outcome data, none of which tends to involve education.

Not to mention that government cuts have really affected the sector overall, although it is hard to pinpoint exactly by how much because the information will be held by local authorities and would need to be collated by all the local authorities across the country, which to date hasn’t been done.

Drug education at university can be slightly better, as previously mentioned, but it is still minimal and students usually have to actively seek it out. For example, Drink ‘n’ Drugs have been doing a number of workshops at universities, where students can learn critical thinking skills, and hopefully fighting the “anti-learning” culture in schools around drugs and addiction. However, resources mean that they cannot reach nearly enough students and many won’t even hear about the workshops.

90% Of Students Have Tried Drugs (Including Alcohol) Before They Get To University

Students For Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) is a student-led grassroots organisation that started in the United States, which aims to build “an open platform for discussion of drug-related issues and to develop sensible drug policies”.

They deliver evidence-based peer to peer education, provide harm reduction action in their communities, such as drug-testing kits and work to reform both campus and global drug policy.

However, whilst the grassroots nature of the organisation means that it seems to be actually providing what students want, it often means that a huge responsibility falls to a small number of individuals – for example, when the leader of the UCL branch graduated, all the SSDP campaigns just stopped. Drug education and campaigns at university should therefore be far more institutionally and nationally run to avoid this and to ensure uniformity of education throughout the country.

The only public health campaign of any substance is Talk to FRANK, which is a website containing a range of drug information and an opportunity to get support through a live chat and signposting to various services.

However, Frank has been the target of significant criticism regarding its content. It has been accused of presenting misleading information and of being a product of the classic “just say no” attitude that the government holds towards drug and addiction education.

It goes to show how unimportant politicians view drug education that there was no mention of drugs at all in the two main parties’ manifestos, let alone anything about proper education on them. The Liberal Democrats pledged to legalise cannabis, with education on cannabis alongside this – which is something at least! But generally, whenever drug education is mentioned, it is never explained or outlined the type of education and whether this includes harm reduction advice.

Essentially, the current state of drug, alcohol and addiction education in the UK is not fair to the upcoming, future generations and doesn’t achieve what the government wants, which is prevention. It is therefore important to consider where young people who are taking drugs are getting their information from, considering they are getting little to nothing at school.

It is also high time that we shook the whole system up and designed a drug education programme that is informative, practical, usable and evidence-based using the latest clinical and research findings that can be delivered to students and young people, teenagers and young adults on a national level.


Other Things That Could Be Included Within Education?

Addiction and substance use don’t simply come alone in one neat, tidy package. Both Acute and chronic substance use and addiction has associated knock-on effects to not only them, but to the people around them such as their parents, siblings, friends, carers, partners, healthcare professionals and others.

Other things that could be included or tied in with other areas in education include:

  • Stress management including mindfulness and simple meditation exercises.
  • Coping better with peer pressure.
  • Mental health and wellness.
  • Include a wide variety of coping strategies and techniques for both coping with life and addiction.
  • Harm minimisation
  • Including educational/Q&A sessions surrounding substances and addiction for parents or guardians to better support their kids and become better informed themselves.
  • Creating an actual PHSE qualification which would allow better funding, length of time students have to learn these vital topics and new resources to be available to students.
  • Other associated topics such as domestic or sexual abuse, finance management/budgeting ect, communication, psychological issues and their management and other associated and appropriate life skills.

Examples Of Drug & Addiction Educational Policy

Eric Carlin, chair of the Drug Information Forum and his team have created guidance for better drug, alcohol and addiction education which could be used by governmental create a better national educational program, however at the time of writing this article, nothing has been done. You can read the document here.


So… Where Does That Leave Our Upcoming Generations?

At present, the disparity between the education that children, teenagers and young adults receive is like a postcode lottery as to whether they receive a truly accurate, helpful and useful education surrounding addiction to drugs and alcohol.

The government has left this issue untouched for years by previous government ministers and departments rather than implementing uniform, practical guidelines about this issue. The government needs to introduce addiction education to children at a young age (appropriate to their age and level of comprehension of course) in order to take the “mystery, curiosity and temptation” out of drugs and alcohol and their use.

Children, teenagers and young adults see the use and promotion of drug and alcohol use in movies, on TV, in the news and on social media. With a properly, supportive and flexible educational program, this would stop young people from wanting to imitate or copy what they see on screen and in print, as well as wanting to copy their idols or role modes, should they too have an addiction to drugs and alcohol.

The hard thing is that the longer this issue is “brushed under the carpet”, the more young people will experiment with substances, continue to use them recreationally and unfortunately, will ultimately lead to some developing full blown addictions themselves which may have been avoided or prevented, had they had the correct information and support from a young age.



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Published by Drink ’n’ Drugs

Providing useful, relevant, up to date information and support for those suffering from active addiction or those who are in recovery.

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