Home > Substance use prevention education in schools: an update on actions in the drugs strategy.

Keane, Martin (2014) Substance use prevention education in schools: an update on actions in the drugs strategy. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 48, Winter 2013, p. 17.

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It would appear that school-based universal substance use prevention education, particularly among second-level students, is moving towards an integrated hybrid model incorporating a whole-school approach to overall health and social education alongside an emphasis on development of personal and social competencies. It is not clear to what extent attention will be given to including substance-use-specific components in any such hybrid model, such as the Social Norms approach, where young people’s perceived norms of substance use among their peers is directly challenged by empirical evidence.1  

For example, actions 20 and 21 of the National Drugs Strategy (NDS)2 relate specifically to improving the implementation of the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) programme as the universal mechanism to prevent substance misuse in students attending both primary and post-primary schools. A progress report on the implementation of these and other actions contained in the strategy has recently been published by the Department of Health.3 This report refers to proposed changes to the implementation of SPHE in the junior cycle (students aged 12–15 years) as part of a new overall framework, with the focus on promoting innovation within the school and developing identity within the student.
This new framework was published in 2011.4 The framework is based on eight core principles, one of which is ‘Wellbeing’, whereby ‘the curriculum contributes directly to the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of students’ (p.10). The framework also includes five priority learning units, including one on ‘looking after myself’, and a set of eight key skills that students should master, including ‘staying well’ and ‘managing myself’. Within this new framework SPHE will become a short course of 100 hours (as opposed to 60–70 hours at present). However, it would appear that the 100 hours may be spread across the three-years of the junior cycle. SPHE is one of twenty-four subjects listed on the curriculum and will be assessed at school level.
On programme evaluation, the framework document states:
The extent to which a school’s programme supports students in developing key skills, improving literacy and numeracy, and in learning relevant to all the statements of learning will be evaluated in the first instance by the school itself through an on-going process of self-evaluation. (p.23)
This work will be supplemented by evaluation undertaken by the Department of Education and Skills through the schools inspectorate. One of the implications of incorporating SPHE within this broad curriculum framework for 12–15-year-olds is that it is not clear to what extent changes in knowledge, attitudes and behaviours around substance use will be measured as part of this evaluation.
The progress report on the NDS contains information on how teachers are being supported in implementing SPHE in schools.For example, at post-primary level a dedicated SPHE support service comprising six staff provides training, advice and support to schools. In the school year 2011/12, 3,949 teachers and other staff attended school-based events and 1,581 teachers attended cluster in-service training organised by the SPHE support service. The professional development service for teachers (PDST) provides support for teachers and schools. The website of the PDST now includes specific material on substance use. The following extract from the website5 illustrates the philosophy underlying the delivery of substance use education in schools:
Substance Misuse Prevention Education involves developing social and personal skills, fostering health promoting values and attitudes and giving age appropriate information, in that context on medicines and drugs, both legal and illegal. …Substance Misuse Prevention Education should not be treated differently to other areas of the curriculum or taught in isolation. Such approaches could have the effect of sensationalising it as a topic rather than treating it as an integral part of the holistic development and education of the pupil in the context of the primary curriculum. The teacher is the best placed person to deliver substance misuse prevention education in the school setting.
1.     McAlaney J, Bewick B and Hughes C (2011) The international development of the ‘social norms’ approach to drug education and prevention. Drugs: education, prevention and policy, 18(2): 81–89.
2.     Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (2009) National Drugs Strategy (interim) 2009–2016. Dublin: Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. www.drugsandalcohol.ie/12388
3.     Department of Health (2013) National Drugs Strategy 2009–2016: progress report to end 2012. Dublin: Department of Health. www.drugsandalcohol.ie/20159
4.     National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (2011) Towards a framework for Junior Cycle: innovation and identity. Dublin:  National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. http://www.ncca.ie/en/Curriculum_and_Assessment/Post-Primary_Education/Junior_Cycle/Junior_cycle_developments/
5.     Downloaded from www.pdst.ie/node/812

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