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Drug Use (Schools)

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 22 May 2003

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What assessment they have made of the proportion of pupils who have had experience of (a) soft and (b) hard drugs by the time they leave school, broken down by (i) independent and (ii) maintained schools. [114217]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

The 2002 school survey on smoking, drinking and drug use suggested that 36 per cent. of 15-year-olds had used some form of drug in the preceding 12 months; 8 per cent. had taken a class A drug during that time.

On the question relating to types of school, the last available information, in 2000, indicated no discernable difference.

The last available evidence is now quite distant and my information comes from visits that I have made to a great many universities as higher education spokesperson. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest a rather higher prevalence of drug use among those who come from the independent sector—not surprisingly, perhaps, given that most of them tend to be from the richer sections of society. Would it not be a good idea to do some rather better and more up-to-date research to check those figures? It might be of interest to parents in deciding whether to send their children to one sector or the other.

I am not sure that it will do the hon. Gentleman's party in the south of England much good to say that drugs are rife among those who attend schools in the independent sector.

As this is our first question, I take the opportunity to say that drugs are an issue of tremendous importance to young people, parents and communities throughout the country. They will welcome the fact that, for the first time, we parliamentarians have taken the opportunity to consider the issue across the Government, and to allow the Government to be scrutinised and held to account by opposition parties.

On the specific point raised by the hon. Gentleman in respect of there being no discernable difference in 2000, it is not particularly helpful to make sweeping statements about the nature of schools and links between that and drug use. Our aspiration is to use drugs education to maximum effect to influence young people's behaviour, whichever school they might have attended. However, I am willing to consider the case for next year's study being clearer on the nature and scale of the problem in different schools, although I am not persuaded that that would be the most worthwhile use of our resources.

I concur with my hon. Friend the Minister. Rather than categorising schools, would not a better use of resources be a look at who is taking drugs and, more particularly, the development of a long-term study to consider young people's susceptibility to addictive behaviour? It is important that we start at the youngest age possible. Too often, researchers look at the problem only once young people have been taking drugs for a considerable period. We need to begin earlier; we need to look at those who are likely to start taking drugs.

My hon. Friend is right. There is a growing awareness and understanding of the importance of addressing those issues from primary school age onwards. We are putting significant resources into curriculum content and continual professional development for those working with primary school children.

My hon. Friend's comments on young people who are particularly susceptible to such addictive behaviour are worth considering. Most useful would be a look at existing evaluation, research and analysis to ensure that it takes adequate account of his concerns, and we shall certainly seek to do that.

I am glad that the Minister has mentioned drugs education. What evidence does he have that it works? As far as I can see, there seem to be as many different education programmes as there are illicit drugs, and they are delivered by bodies as diverse as the police and reformed addicts. Which programmes are the most effective and what impact have they had on stopping young people experimenting with drugs?

Our policy is quite clear. We have devolved resources to local education authorities and schools so that decisions are made locally about which provisions are most appropriate and respond to the requirements of the personal, social and health education national curriculum.

It is not appropriate for central Government to prescribe models, although that is not the same as saying that we do not want to learn from good practice or to study drugs education programmes that work. That is one reason why we have launched a project to study the effects of drugs education in 30 schools up and down the country over a relatively long period. The impact of such programmes on behaviour cannot be established in the short term. What is required is a longer-term study of young people's access to drugs education, and one would hope for a reduction in drug use in that cohort later.

Following on from that, I commend the Government for their educational initiatives in schools. However, one of my concerns is that teachers are often not fully aware of what is happening out in society—they are not really in tune with cultural changes. What measures have been introduced to raise their knowledge and awareness?

I can assure my hon. Friend that unprecedented resources are going into focusing on the issue at the initial teacher training stage. Equally important, if not more so, is continual professional development. We need the experts in PSHE to feel comfortable and confident about delivering drugs education in schools and to know when it is appropriate to call in specialists to assist them. In that respect, we should not forget that there is a role for external voluntary organisations, as well as the police, in some cases, to come into schools to assist teachers. As I say, there is unprecedented investment.

The curriculum support materials that we now provide are far more effective than they were. We are in the process of clarifying and reissuing guidance to front-line teachers and head teachers on what constitutes appropriate drugs education at the beginning of the 21st century. We must ensure that our approach gets through to today's generation of young people, and that requires a far better understanding of how they will respond. It is no good turning them off—we must turn them on so that they take seriously the credibility, integrity and relevance of the drugs education programme.

Does the Minister share my concern about recent survey evidence that suggests that 86 per cent. of primary school children think that cannabis is legal, while 79 per cent. think that it is safe? Does he also share my concern about the evidence given to me by the Department of Health in a written answer on 11 April? It indicated that the use of cannabis has increased markedly among teenage children since the Home Secretary announced his intention to downgrade it to a class C drug. That is particularly true of 15-year-old girls, among whom its use has increased from 25 to 30 per cent., according to the Department's figures. Are the Government giving children the very dangerous message that cannabis is okay? Should not the policy change before more children are damaged?

If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman does no one in the House a service by presenting a misleading, factually incorrect statement on the current situation. There are absolutely no data to support any such linkages between the attitudes or behaviour of young people and the decision on the declassification of cannabis. It is clear from Government policy, in all the drugs education programmes and other programmes that we promote, that cannabis is unsafe and a risk to health. We do not want our young people to take cannabis in any circumstances or with any sense of justification. There is no evidence to suggest that young people's attitudes or behaviour have changed as a consequence of the reclassification of cannabis within the criminal justice system.

The Minister makes the case that the increase in drug use among children since the policy was announced is coincidental. He may or may not be right. Would it be reasonable for the Government to take seriously concerns about the increase in cannabis use among very young children? The figure for the 11 to 14-year-old age group has risen to 14 per cent. Indeed, there are increases in every category: the figure for 14-year-olds has risen from 18 to 19 per cent., and that for 15-year-olds has risen from 30 to 32 per cent.

Among girls, there has been an even greater increase. The figure for 15-year-old girls has risen from 25 to 30 per cent., and that for 14-year-old girls has risen from 16 to 19 per cent. Those figures come from the Department of Health. Surely they are a cause of concern to the Government. Is it not time for Ministers in all Departments to pause and reflect on whether they are sending the wrong message and causing the damage?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Bob Ainsworth)

:Of course the figures are of concern, and cannabis use is far too high. The issue that divides us is how that should be tackled. The main motive behind the reclassification decision is to create a credible message that young people are prepared to listen to. They will not listen to us if we pretend that cannabis, harmful as it is, is as dangerous as heroin or crack cocaine.

We must have a credible differential message when we are dealing with young people in the modern age. They are not prepared simply to accept messages handed down from on high. Sadly, many young people have friends who take cannabis. They know about its effects, and we have to engage effectively with those people. If we are going to do that, we have to send a credible message. We decided that a credible message is a differentiated message—cannabis is harmful, but not as harmful as class A drugs, which do massive damage to our communities. It is harmful to health, and people should not take it. If people in this House and elsewhere helped to get that message across, they would be behaving a little more constructively.