Alcohol and drug education – what does the evidence say?

The creation of ‘well-rounded’ young people with ‘character’, resilience, and ‘grit’ is a key priority for the Department for Education. Building resilience and character is crucial to reducing engagement in unhealthy risky behaviours says Jamila Boughelaf of the Mentor alcohol and drugs charity.

Picture credit: Daniel Foster

Alcohol and drug use is only one of the many risks young people may encounter as they grow up, and it is often related to other social, personal and cultural risk factors. Merely providing information about alcohol and drugs in isolation does not give young people the opportunity to explore and understand the connections between various risk factors and behaviours, and this method of substance education in schools has been proven to have no, or negative, prevention outcomes.

Unfortunately, the current status of alcohol and drug education in schools and other educational establishments across England is inconsistent– often characterised by a fragmented topic-style teaching approach, or carried out on the basis of ineffective, and at times harmful, approaches, such as information provision, scare tactics, and standalone campaigns.

As the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) highlighted, we need to invest in, and further develop evidence-based practice through high quality evaluation and research, to avoid potential harmful outcomes often associated with drug prevention methods lacking evidence of effectiveness.

Evidence suggests the most effective alcohol and drug prevention programmes integrate information with personal and social development as well as techniques for building resistance skills.

There has recently been a challenging debate on the need for Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education as a statutory entitlement for children and young people. The Commons Education Committee has acknowledged the strong relationship between good quality PSHE education and the overall health and well-being of children and young people.

Soft skills

Recent research stressed the importance of a comprehensive approach to health and well-being to ensure children and young people grow as resilient, assertive and informed individuals. Within this context, the development of so-called ‘soft skills’ proved to be crucial in supporting children and young people in their future lives.

Evidence suggests social development programmes not only help to increase attachment to school and improve academic performance, but also improve social skills, reducing aggressive and disruptive behaviour in and outside the classroom.

In particular, strengthening pupils’ physical and emotional well-being, risk awareness, empathy, resilience, assertiveness, communication skills and positive social behaviours is fundamental to the prevention of negative risky behaviours, including substance use.

Risky behaviours are varied and interlinked: the absence of protective factors and the combination of multiple risk factors increases the chances of an individual being involved in a number of risky behaviours.

Building resilience and character is crucial to reducing engagement in unhealthy risky behaviours. Therefore, by enhancing protective factors, such as life-skills and self-efficacy, and creating positive social norms it is possible to build resilience to risks and improve the health and well-being of children and young people.

Moreover life experiences, along with the relationships and competencies children develop during the early years of their lives have a major impact on their outcomes and choices later in life. If provided with the necessary support to develop social and emotional skills, it is more likely that they will have improved educational, career and social outcomes.

Although parenting is the prime source of social and emotional learning, schools have a major role to play to support the development of children and young people and promote a healthy environment in which they can thrive. For this reason, evidence-based early intervention and prevention programmes provide a real chance for children and young people to develop the ability to better face future challenges and opportunities.

Tried and tested methods

A number of effective programmes that, by focusing on promoting life-skills education and positive social norms, have a significant impact on reducing risky behaviours are available on quality-assured repositories such as the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions (CAYT), and can also be accessed through The Mentor-ADEPIS service website

Examples of effective, quality assured programs are:

  • PreVenture: a targeted programme for 13-16 year-olds aimed at reducing risk-taking behaviour by providing students with coping skills to better manage anxiety, depression and risk-taking. London schools trials showed high levels of effectiveness in cutting binge drinking rates, reducing shoplifting, significantly reducing truancy rates, reducing reckless behaviour, reducing depression and reducing numbers of panic attacks.
  • The Good Behaviour Game: a school-focused game based on a comprehensive social influence approach to managing behaviour during lessons. Pupils (6-8 years-old) are divided into teams and may earn prizes and praise by keeping simple rules for good behaviour. Evaluation showed significant reduction in disruptive and aggressive behaviour and improvement in children’s ability to focus and work independently. In the long-term, the programme halves the probability of young men engaging in risky behaviours such as drug abuse. It also increases the likelihood of high school graduation by 21 per cent and of college attendance by 62 per cent. The programme also proved to be effective in reducing stress levels among teachers, consequently increasing staff retention. Mentor is currently running a national trial of the programme.

Schools and other educational establishments are currently constrained by a lack of curriculum time and resources, an absence of teacher training, and limited central guidance and support.

For this reason we recommend that:

  • All parties recognise the importance of quality PSHE education provision by making it a statutory entitlement for all children and young people;
  • All parties consider investing in evidence-based programmes and including them in school-based education to complement, or to be part of, PSHE education.