Headteacher Martin Ainsworth extols the benefits to his school of taking part in the Blueprint Drug Education Research Programme.
Wellfield Business and Enterprise College is 70 years old this year. Situated in Leyland town centre (famous for building trucks and buses), the school is geographically at the heart of our community. We are a relatively small high school (520 pupils aged 11-16), our intake is truly comprehensive with the hard statistical indicators placing us on the mean compared to other schools nationally. Governors, staff, students, parents and community partners have a deep and dedicated commitment to ensure the school plays an active role in life and work of our catchment area.
We actively seek projects and initiatives that allow us to develop our experience and expertise in areas linked to citizenship, the environment and personal, social and health education. We are fortunate to have staff and governors who are willing to champion these areas and put in the time, effort and enthusiasm to ensure that if we adopt a pilot scheme we will give the commitment to ensure it has every chance of success.
My job as headteacher is to vet requests to take part in pilot projects to ensure:
- taking part doesn’t weaken our ability to deliver our core business, ie teaching and learning
- the project relates to the school’s vision and development plan
- the project adds to the school’s expertise and resources
- the workload created by the project is manageable by the staff involved
- the project will be relevant, interesting and exciting for the students.
A high status project
When we were first approached and invited to be involved with the Blueprint drug education initiative, on initial scrutiny the project ticked all of the above boxes. From the outset Blueprint was organised in a way that gave the project a positive impetus.
The initial briefing event was well designed, efficiently presented and given high status. The day’s event was held in a comfortable venue and the activities allowed myself and our PSHE coordinator to gain a clear impression of the teaching and learning activities and resources involved. The fact that a government minister took time to be present at the event added to the feeling of importance and relevance.
Soon after we had signed to take part in Blueprint, we were asked to pilot some of the teaching materials. I was impressed with how carefully the researcher listened to the pupils’ views and that these opinions resulted in amendments in the final workbooks.
Our next step was to attend the two-day training event for the teachers who would deliver the programme. I attended the event to act as a back-up instructor in the event of teacher absence. Again the two days were extremely effective, stimulating and enjoyable. The team of teachers returned to school informed, enthused and well prepared to deliver the programme.
It was very evident that the Blueprint project was very well researched and open-minded in its approach. It did not feel rushed and our views were listened to and often acted upon. I’ve been a head for 12 years and I’m sad to say that not all centralised initiatives have shared these features. Blueprint is a research project and it has been a learning experience for all of its participants.
Back at school, the delivery of the programme to students could be delivered over several weeks or the more intensive approach of one or two days with a small interval of time in between. We chose the latter approach as we have enjoyed success in the past by temporarily halting the timetable and letting staff and students have a significant amount of quality time to devote to a subject.
Teachers found delivering the programme to be exciting and challenging. Active learning opportunities abounded and students enjoyed the variety of activities they were asked to work through individually and collectively.
The content of Blueprint had a useful balance between information about drugs and their use/misuse and exploring myths commonly held about young people’s attitude and behaviour relating to drugs. The programme doesn’t preach to students; it doesn’t try to frighten them; and it doesn’t try to be trendy by getting on to their level and ending up patronising them and losing credibility. It had looked carefully at the drug education initiatives preceding it and learned from their mistakes (of which there have been many).
Positive student response
Students clearly didn’t feel that the programme was being imposed upon. They felt they were exploring problems and issues by being armed with objective accessible information which then allowed meaningful well structured opportunities for discussion and opinion forming. The programme didn’t sensationalise things nor did it minimise the impact of drugs on all our lives.
Part of the programme involved students answering questionnaires before, during and several times after having the pilot lessons/activities. The results of these questionnaires will not be revealed until the projects’ conclusion. Independent researchers came into school to administer the questionnaires and students responded maturely to the visitors and their work. They appreciated that they were part of important work involving not just themselves at Wellfield but people of their own age in the other pilot schools spread around the country.
The Central Blueprint team played a key role in working the media. Schools have sometimes been wary about being associated with drug education for fear they will be seen to be doing this because they are responding to a specific drug problem within their own school. At times, the media has also been guilty of sensationalising drug incidents and stirring up a hue and cry out of all proportion to reality. The Blueprint team took a proactive approach involving and informing the media from the early days of the project.
Our school enjoyed very positive publicity from our involvement, including a visit from Caroline Flint, junior minister in the Home Office. When we were invited to the Blueprint official reception at the House of Lords it was the first visit to London for some of our year 8 students who learned first hand about citizenship and returned to school bubbling with their experience as Blueprint ambassadors.
Apathy from parents
Parents were seen as key partners in this initiative and the project was prepared to expend considerable amounts of time and money to engage with this group. Like many secondary schools, our experience of getting parents to leave the comforts of their homes to take part in lifelong learning has been problematic. Parent/student consultation evenings are very well attended but other events less so.
The Blueprint team seemed imbued with the Field of Dreams optimism – a ‘if you build it they will come’ belief. We counselled a more limited approach but their specially trained Parent Team were determined in their efforts.
Sadly, several poorly attended events later and faced with plates of uneaten buffet, they had to admit defeat. The only drug related information events for parents I remember being well attended followed the untimely death of Leah Betts linked to ecstasy when special evenings swiftly staged were packed to the rafters with anxious parents.
We have now finished the official involvement with the Blueprint Programme, apart from the further questionnaires to be completed by the sample students in future years, which will track their attitudes and behaviour. Much of the Blueprint Programme has been incorporated into our PSHE programme at key stage 3 and the teaching approaches adopted into the delivery of other PSHE and citizenship programmes.
There is no doubt that the students enjoyed the experience and responded enthusiastically to the lessons and associated activities. They felt they were an important part of a research activity – Blueprint wasn’t being ‘done to them’, it was giving them a genuine opportunity to contribute. The extras, such as ministerial visits and the trip to the House of Lords, were undoubtedly memorable for those involved.
Teachers enjoyed the high level of training and resourcing they received and responded with enthusiasm to deliver the programme with flair and energy. The difficulty in getting parents involved pro-actively raises some interesting questions. Was this due to a general apathy? Or the feeling ‘that’s the school’s job, let them get on with it’? Or did they believe they were covering these areas in their own way and didn’t need external prompting or tutoring? I think meaningful involvement of secondary age parents in the learning process is a big challenge for our school and probably many others.
Overall, our involvement in the Blueprint project was very positive and beneficial. We went into the experience well informed and confident that we had contributions to make, as well as things to learn. The process was sensitively managed by the Blueprint team and we felt we were a part of their team – consulted and accountable. The model for this programme is expensive but it is of high quality and can usefully be used again for future projects.
The Blueprint Programme
The Blueprint research programme was designed to examine the effectiveness of a multi-component approach to drug education. Its key characteristics were a focus on normative education – about relating pupils’ expectations to reality – and the high degree of interactivity it offered for pupils and parents.
The five components of the programme were:
- schools – a series off 15 Blueprint lessons (ten in Year 7, five in Year 8), delivered over a two-year period in 23 pilot schools, with a further six schools forming a comparison group
- parents – parents and carers involved through specially created materials and workshops on parenting skills
- community – coordination with prevention activities of other partners, such as Drug Action Teams (DATs), resulting in creation of sustainable School Alliances
- health policy – focused on policy-related initiatives such as reducing sales of certain substances to minors
- media – media relations locally and nationally were key to engaging and informing the wider community.
Blueprint is being evaluated by a research programme that will provide the evidence base for the development of drug education. Among other things, the research will assess and examine the impact that Blueprint has had on:
- prevalence of drug use among the year 7 and year 8 age groups
- prevalence of poly-drug use
- the quantity and quality of communication about drugs between parents and young people
- changes in young people’s perceptions of drug use.
The full results of the programme will be available in 2007.