Education, Education, Education – Harm Reduction Begins At School

“With drug-related deaths at an all-time high, ensuring that young people have the information they need to make informed choices is more important than ever”.

Jay Jackson

Providing young people with simple, practical and accurate information is the best way to ensure their safety, allowing them to make informed choices about their use of alcohol, tobacco and all other drugs.

Educating children should not just be about impressing upon them the values and skills needed to become the next generation of the workforce, a truly comprehensive education (I use that word purposefully) must give young people the intellectual, social and life skills needed to navigate and thrive in the world as it is. 

But more importantly, it must also imbue the youth of today with the curiosity and capacity to question the status quo and critically engage with the world around them, so that they have the ability to shape the world for tomorrow.

Education is the definitive condition of the modern age, and has been an essential value of liberalism since its conception. With this in mind it’s about time young people are given a proper education about drugs and their use both in our own society and elsewhere. 

We know that, thanks to the pathetic nature of our efforts to educate children about drugs, one-in-four 16-24 year olds are getting their information on (and adverts to buy) drugs on social media sites such as Snapchat and Instagram. 

Currently, information about drugs is delivered through Relationships, Sex and Health Education and requires that by the end of secondary school (aged 16) pupils should know about:

  • the facts about legal and illegal drugs and their associated risks, including the link between drug use, and the associated risks, including the link to serious mental health conditions.
  • the law relating to the supply and possession of illegal substances.
  • the physical and psychological risks associated with alcohol consumption and what constitutes low risk alcohol consumption in adulthood.
  • the physical and psychological consequences of addiction, including alcohol dependency.
  • awareness of the dangers of drugs which are prescribed but still present serious health risks.
  • the facts about the harms from smoking tobacco (particularly the link to lung cancer), the benefits of quitting and how to access support to do so.

But we know that RSE is not fit for purpose in schools across the country, with the quantity and quality of teaching dependent on a postcode lottery – especially given the lack of guidance given on how to deliver RSE and the proliferation of academy schools who have the ability to teach their own curriculums. 

A cursory examination of the drugs, alcohol and tobacco teacher training module, and RSE guidance for schools demonstrates that they aren’t much more than shock-and-scare documents designed simply to prevent children from using drugs – a task in which it is failing – as opposed to arming them with practical advice on what to do if they or someone they know has drug use issues, for example.

In addition to this, we need to talk about FRANK. FRANK is the national anti-drugs advisory service established in 2003 to provide information to young people about the risks of drug taking, and reduce the use of illicit substances by people under the age of 25 – an outcome that has actually happened, but as you’ll come to see, probably can’t be attributed to FRANK.

With drug-related deaths at an all-time high, ensuring that young people have the information they need to make informed choices is more important than ever. It is absolutely unbelievable, therefore, that the government’s own training module on teaching about drugs states that “it is not recommended that pupils are referred to the website.”  That’s right, the government doesn’t want young people to look at its own drugs information website, funded to the tune of millions of pounds per year of public money.

So, what does a good drug education programme in schools look like? Firstly, when delivering information to our young people, it needs to be done with a recognition that there is, and cannot ever be, such a thing as a drug-free society. Instead, aiming for a healthier, safer, more rational approach to drugs that seeks to diminish the risks involved as far as possible – acknowledging that there is no such thing as ‘safe’ drug use, particularly in prohibitionist societies – and that the safest way to do drugs, or indeed anything – is to not do them at all. 

In doing so, our schools can create cohorts of young people who, armed with the knowledge about the harms and risks involved with all forms of drug use, including tobacco and alcohol, can either abstain from using any or all substances, or can take drugs (as we know about 40% of the population admit to doing at some point in their lifetime anyway) as safely as possible in a society that – until legislative change finally takes the production and supply of drugs away from organised crime groups – continues to knowingly, purposefully, and vindictively increase the harms associated with drug use. 

Rather than attempting to prevent drug use, let’s prevent drug misuse.

Healthy, effective drugs education would also take place consistently over all key stages, starting early in an age-appropriate manner, and would form part of a wider commitment to the expansion and embedding of PSHE across the curriculum. It should also feature harm reduction information, or at the very least signposting to organisations such as Drugs and Me, DrugWise, Release amongst many others who provide high quality, accessible harm reduction information – particularly at KS4 & 5 when young people are likely to be coming into contact with drugs for the first time. 

It also should not include police presence in schools. Police teaching lessons about drugs in schools very pointedly and aggressively frames drugs as a criminal justice issue, instead of a health one – why not have drug treatment specialists, psychologists or doctors/nurses deliver information instead? Moreover, police aren’t properly trained to engage with children effectively about these issues, and are obviously an impediment to free discussion in the classroom as children, especially vulnerable ones such as those who may have grown up around substance use, will be hesitant to speak out for fear of criminalisation. 

Fundamentally, education about drugs (as with education about anything else) must not simply be about the retention of facts, indistinguishable lists about the effects and risks involved with each drug, but the acquisition of knowledge and skills (give a man a fish et cetera). 

By failing to educate our young people effectively about drug use, we are failing to ready them for the rest of their lives, and whilst not every drug death could be prevented by better education, there is an extent to which as a society we are complicit in these deaths if we continue to knowingly provide education to children that is at best ineffective, at worst counterproductive.

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We need to arm pupils with practical advice on what to do if they or someone they know has drug use issues, for example. Find out how we can improve the RSE curriculum here:

Reforming RSE to teach students about drugs and ensuring students are able to make informed choices. Read more here:

About the author

Jay Jackson is the Head of Public Affairs at Volteface. He has also written for Labourlist and Labour History.

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