Home > SPHE and substance use education.

Keane, Martin (2014) SPHE and substance use education. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 51, Autumn 2014, pp. 19-20.

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The Department of Education and Skills (DES) recently launched the report of the working group set up to examine how education on substance use is provided in post-primary schools in the context of Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE).1 This work arose from a commitment in the 2011 Programme for Government to ‘update the out-dated drugs awareness programme in schools to reflect current attitudes and the reality of recreational drug use among teens’.2 

The working group reviewed a selection of international and national literature and concluded that ‘…multi-element programmes which have whole-school, parent and community support strands, coupled with a harm reduction approach, appear to offer considerable advantages as regards effective substance use education programmes for young people…’ (p. 40). In recognising the potential benefits of including harm reduction components in school-based substance use education, the working group cited evidence from an evaluation by McKay and colleagues of an adapted version of the Schools Alcohol Harm Reduction Programme (SHAHRP), conducted in Belfast.3 

McKay and colleagues undertook a controlled non-randomised trial with post-primary school students aged 13–16 years: eight schools received SHAHRP delivered by teachers, twelve schools received SHAHRP delivered by external alcohol and drug education workers and nine schools, the control arm of the trial, received the standard curriculum on alcohol education. The researchers found that, in contrast to participants in the control group, participants receiving the SHAHRP intervention were significantly more likely to report increased levels of knowledge about alcohol and its effects, safer alcohol-related attitudes, fewer alcohol-related harms (both personal and from others) and lower alcohol consumption. These effects were maintained over the 11-month period in which none of the students received any intervention. The researchers concluded that ‘the adapted SHAHRP intervention is a promising means to address one of the major health and social challenges facing young people [alcohol consumption]’ (p. 118). They also acknowledged that harm reduction interventions targeting young people can be controversial; however, as in the case of students receiving SHAHRP in Belfast, such interventions do not necessarily promote or produce alcohol-friendly attitudes and/or behaviours among target groups. 

The working group addressed the sometimes contentious nature of the term harm reduction, particularly when considered in the context of school-based substance use education. They acknowledged that the term may have negative connotations, but they went on to say that ‘taking care of oneself or looking after one’s own safety, topics already covered in On My Own Two Feet is effectively a harm reduction strategy…’ (p. 44). This interpretation is in line with the aims of the education provided in Belfast through the SHAHRP intervention. The key messages included in the SHAHRP intervention include advice on staying close to trusted friends when consuming alcohol, knowing basic first-aid, organising group transport home, having mobile phones available, not making decisions while drunk, being able to identify when friends are getting drunk, being on the alert for drink spiking and mixing alcohol with other drugs and avoiding arguments and aggressive behaviour by self and others. A full description of the evaluation of SHAHRP is provided in an earlier issue of Drugnet Ireland.4 

After considering the evidence and the arguments for and against harm reduction, the working group recommended that ‘…teaching and learning resources used in schools and centres for education be aimed at reducing, postponing and/or eliminating substance use, as appropriate, in recognition of the reality that a proportion of students are using legal and illegal substances…’ (p. 8.) 

The working group also undertook a wide-ranging consultation with academics, researchers, public health experts, school management and teacher unions. The group also visited eight schools and three Youthreach centres and consulted with staff and students in both settings. Arising from these consultations and consideration of relevant documents and literature, the working group concluded that ‘…quality substance use education is dependent on the quality of standard of delivery, which is supported through the use of relevant educational resources…’ (p. 7).

The working group is of the view that updating the current On My Own Two Feet resource (implicit in the 2011 Programme for Government commitment) is not an adequate response. The group set out recommendations to assist teaching staff, schools and centres for education to deliver SPHE. These include providing continuous personal development (CPD) for SPHE teachers, and adopting a whole-school approach to student well-being in which providing SPHE is the central strategy. These and a number of other recommendations primarily relate to supporting teachers and schools and embedding SPHE in the school curriculum. These recommendations and principles underpinning them are in line with actions 20–21 in the current National Drugs Strategy, which relate to the implementation of SPHE in schools.5 

Finally, the working group noted the large number of textbooks and resource materials for SPHE that have become available since the early 1990s. They cautioned that ‘…it is possible that teachers could become over-reliant on text-book material and so diminish the experiential, interactive approach, which is regarded as an essential part of SPHE delivery…’ (p. 55). There is consensus in the evidence base that non-interactive programmes are not effective; such programmes include information provision alone, emotional education alone, transmission of values and decision-making alone and DARE-type programmes (delivered didactically by police officers in the United States).6


1 Working Group on educational materials for use in SPHE in post-primary schools and centres for education  (2014) Report of the Working Group on educational materials for use in SPHE in post-primary schools and centres for education with particular reference to substance use education in the context of SPHE. Dublin: Department of Education and Skills.  https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/22264/

2 Fine Gael, Labour Party  (2011) Towards recovery: programme for a National Government 2011–2016. Dublin: Fine Gael and Labour Party. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/14795/

3 McKay M, McBride N, Sumnall H and Cole J (2012) Reducing the harm from adolescent alcohol consumption: results from an adapted version of SHAHRP in Northern Ireland. Journal of Substance Use, 17(2): 98–121. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/17020/

4 Keane M (2012) Reducing alcohol-related harm: evaluation of a SHAHRP intervention. Drugnet Ireland (42): 14. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/17691/

5 Keane M (2014) Substance use prevention education in schools: an update on actions in the drugs strategy. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 48. p. 17. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/21215/

6 Bühler A and Kröger C (2008) EMCDDA Insights: Prevention of substance abuse. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.  https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/11625/

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