Drugs in primary schools: the Ecstasy and the agony

The National Association of Head Teachers believes all primary schools now have drug-abusing pupils. Wendy Berliner looks at the problem and finds out what can be done
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The Independent Culture
Primary schools throughout Britain are currently ingesting government guidance on drugs education which suggests, controversially, that from the age of four, children should be taught that drug misuse is harmful.

For many parents and teachers this will be a bitter pill to swallow. Why, they will argue, should we rob young children of their innocence? Surely it will actually tempt children to try drugs?

But although only very small numbers of young children are thought to experiment with drugs, the National Association of Head Teachers believes that every primary school in Britain has pupils abusing drugs, at least at the level of sniffing solvents.

An Exeter University survey says half of all 15- and 16-year-old boys in the UK may have experimented with cannabis by the end of this year and 80 per cent of all young people will know at least one person who takes illegal drugs.

Where older children and teenagers are using drugs, children of six and seven can easily get involved in sniffing solvents and progress to smoking cannabis by eight or nine. By 11 they may be experimenting with LSD and Ecstasy.

Generally, they only get into hard drugs if adults want to hook them for use in criminal activity. Otherwise, primary school- aged children do not have the cash to buy them.

But although small numbers are involved, the drug culture that exists among teenagers is filtering down to the younger children who inhabit the same recreation grounds and, in many cases, the same homes that they do.

Even the clothes some of them wear suggest the age of innocence is very short- lived. Many primary headteachers have banned Mr Spliffy clothes from school. The clothes have an emblem of a tousle-haired boy wearing jeans and trainers and holding a cannabis joint. The clothes are available in toddler sizes upwards.

Most primary schools do not tackle drugs education, leaving it to their secondary school colleagues. Those that do tend to build it into a programme of health and personal education much as the new government guidance suggests, although there is no UK research evidence yet to say whether any of it reduces drug abuse in young people.

`Druggyman lives near me and catches children'

He is only six, but he knows that drugs mean more than Junior Disprol. Eyes wide with innocence and seriousness, he explains: "Druggyman lives near me and he tries to catch children. He wants to give them drugs the teenagers take at raves."

His class has just met PC Ken Robinson at Townhill Infant School in Southampton for one of a series of pioneering lessons which brings drugs education right into the heart of primary schools.

PC Robinson hadn't told him about Druggyman. He had been drawing faces on big sheets of white paper and asking the children to think up words to describe the expressions. He had asked them what made them feel happy, cross or frightened. One little girl said her cousin's dog frightened her because it was bigger than the gate. Another was frightened of her hamster's shadow on the wall. PC Robinson had encouraged them to talk to someone they loved or trusted and to share the feelings.

Such lessons are part of a unique collaboration between Hampshire County Council and Hampshire Constabulary. The partnership has produced an innovatory drugs education programme called "Getting It Right", which starts with four-year-olds and continues throughout the primary school years.

Specially trained uniformed police officers have a beat of up to 35 schools where they give regular lessons. The youngest children try on police helmets and ring up the control room. By age six the talk is of the contents of medicine cabinets, and by nine the misuse of solvents.

On the way, they learn about the body, how to resist bullies and how to say no.

It is a softly, softly approach designed to keep children as safe as possible without alienating parents and teachers. It is only in its second year and it is too early to tell whether it works. An evaluation is under way.

In Southampton, drugs are a minority problem in primary schools, but there are some nine-year-olds who sniff solvents and 10 and 11-year-olds who smoke cannabis.

Not all schools will take the programme. Some resist it because they think parents will believe there is a drugs problem in the school if they do.

PC Robinson believes passionately in it. He has come to the job after seven years on Hampshire Constabulary's drugs squad. He was sitting waiting to set off for an armed drugs raid when the advert in the constabulary newsletter caught his eye. He has a 13-year-old and 15-year-old of his own.

"I have seen the misery drugs create for families and the misery for individuals. That is why I wanted to do this," he says.

He has no illusions about the innocence of children growing up in the city today. "A few weeks ago, I asked some of the older ones to imagine they'd found a handbag with drugs in it and to try to write what was in there. Some wrote Calpol and Disprol. Some wrote acid and dope."

Hampshire County Council will host a conference based on its primary drugs education programme on 29 June at the Guild Hall, Winchester, from 10am to 4pm. Cost pounds 80. For details, contact Linda Elliott, publications department, Hampshire County Council, on 01962 846549.

Happy Harold and Co hit the high road

The crunch comes 45 minutes into a session that has plugged health awareness to a group of nine-year-olds. They have talked about all the good stuff they should be doing ... now what about the bad?

"Do people always take care of their bodies?" asks the teacher Michelle Roe. "Some people have drugs," says one of the children sitting cross- legged on the floor.

"What kind of drugs?" she asks. "They smoke," says the child. "What do they smoke?" asks Michelle. "Nicotine," says the child.

This is rural Bedfordshire. Not one of the children from this group at St Mary's Lower School, Clophill, knows the name of a "bad" drug. Yet 10 miles away in Luton, some six-year-olds can name every illegal substance.

For the last four years, Ms Roe has been taking the Life Education Unit, a mobile classroom dedicated to preventing drug abuse in young children, to schools throughout the county.

The unit offers a systematic programme of three visits per school during the early primary years. The drug education is never overt. It creeps stealthily in during the preaching of the gospel of good health, the importance of self-esteem and the wonders of the human body.

Children are taken on from whatever point of drug awareness they have reached. Michelle Roe is fastidious in ensuring she does not "teach about drugs". She feels that if she did, most parents and teachers would withdraw support.

The Life Education Unit is funded by the Harpur Trust, a Bedford-based education charity, but is part of a worldwide anti-drugs education movement started in Australia. Other units operate elsewhere in Britain.

Small groups of 10 or 12 children go into the classroom, which has no windows or chairs. Children sit on the carpeted floor. The walls are carpeted, too, and the ceiling is covered in black cloth. Lighting is minimal. The effect is small, dark, cosy, and confessional.

Although not a qualified teacher, Michelle Roe quickly establishes a relationship with the children. She keeps telling them all how clever and brilliant they are. The most off-the-wall answer to a question still gets an enthusiastic response. Everyone can feel big here.

The youngest meet Happy Harold, a giraffe hand-puppet that is often the only thing the little ones seem to remember from the visits. The older ones meet Tam, a human-sized transparent model whose organs light up at the touch of the children's "magic" fingers. Videoed stories and songs back it all up.

The children remain attentive throughout. How much they retain from these short, sharp, intensive experiences remains unknown. Michelle says it works best when it is integrated into the school's own health awareness programme and when the same messages are reinforced at home.

She has some one-off successes, like the 10-year-old who came up to her after one session and said: "I used to smoke and sniff, but I'm giving them up now."

Two little boys with a big problem

A London primary school head tells of two pupils who got drawn into drugs.

We started to get suspicious when the two brothers, who were nine and 10, started being late and then missing odd days from school, because they were not the sort of boys who did that. But it was difficult to get a response from Mum because she was working all hours to keep the home together and she wasn't on the phone.

The boys came back late from the Christmas holidays, but they said it was because they had been staying with family in Scotland. Then, a couple of weeks later, they were off for three days.

I went round to the boys' home and stuck a note through the door asking where they were. I remember it was pouring with rain, the kind of day you wouldn't send a cat out in, with the rain bouncing off the pavement.

The next-door neighbour found the note when she took the milk in. She rang me up in a terrible state to say the boys should be at school. Their Mum left for work at 7.30am and this neighbour made sure that they left for school by 8.15am.

We managed to get Mum home from work. She was in a terrible panic. They turned up at 4.30pm. It was still pouring and they were bone dry. They said they were just playing truant; the mother said she knew they were lying.

A few days later the younger one had to go to the dentist. He had an anaesthetic and as he was woosy coming round, she asked him where he had really been. He started telling her things that made her think he must be hallucinating. Whan the elder boy came home she told him what his little brother had been saying and he broke down and said it was all true.

Over a six-month period they had become hooked on sniffing butane gas cylinders encouraged by two teenagers. The brothers grew to idolise these two older boys, who bought them McDonald's meals and took them to games arcades.

Then they were persuaded to try crack and once they were hooked on that introduced to men who used them to help in burglaries. They were then sexually abused by these men, who were part of a paedophile ring. They were also made to watch sexual abuse of other people.

The mother was devastated. She called the police. The boys are now in care. Drugs are all around us here. There are addicts on the corner and syringes in the playground in the morning. My school secretary knows three children of 13 and 14 who have died of drug addiction since she's been here. No child, no matter how young, is completely safe.

INTERVIEW BY WENDY BERLINER

WHAT CHILDREN SHOULD KNOW, AND WHEN

From 1 August the Government says the following must be taught in state schools science lessons. These are minimum requirements:

5-7 years: the role of drugs as medicines.

7-11 years: tobacco, alcohol and other drugs can harm.

11-14 years: the abuse of alcohol, solvents and other drugs affect health.

14-16 years: the effects of solvents, tobacco, alcohol and other drugs

on bodily functions.

Guidance from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority suggests the following could be taught:

4 plus: drug misuse is harmful.

5 plus: the effects of alcohol and smoking on the body and behaviour.

7 plus: discarded syringes and needles are dangerous. An introduction to the law on legal and illegal drugs.

11 plus: the categories of drugs, including stimulants and hallucinogens.

14 plus: legal status of drugs and their effects and appearance. Dangers of mixing drugs and the moods they induce.

WHAT PARENTS THINK

Jane Breed, mother of a nine-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy, who joined sessions in the Life Education Unit at St. Mary's School, Clophill, Bedfordshire:

"They were both bowled over by it. My daughter didn't want to buy Coca- Cola at the supermarket afterwards because she read the label and saw it had caffeine in it. I am all for schools doing this. There are some jobs schools can do better than parents and this is one of them."

Geoff Bollom, father of children aged 12, seven and five, whose two youngest are taking part in "Getting it Right" at Townhill Infant School, Southampton:

"I didn't actually realise it was about drugs education. I am concerned about them learning about it at a very young age. It has to be handled very carefully and delicately in an atmosphere of trust. I'm not happy that it is necessary."

Heather Sibley, mother of two boys, aged five and six, who visited the Life Education Unit:

"I don't think this kind of thing would encourage children to try drugs. It's bad enough trying to get them to try new food."

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