A change in the new national curriculum (Curriculum) recognises the need to educate children about the dangers of drug use. The new component of the Health and Physical Education curriculum will include delivering drug education classes to children as young as eight.
As reported in the Daily Telegraph, students from Year 3 will learn how to respond to unsafe situations involving illegal drugs, tobacco, alcohol, performance-enhancing drugs, prescription drugs, bush and alternative medicines, energy drinks and caffeine. The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) website states that in Years 3 and 4 'students begin to explore personal and social factors that support and contribute to their identities and emotional responses in varying situations. They also develop a further understanding of how their bodies grow and change as they get older.'
These classes might be considered too early for some, especially given that there are already 'mental health and wellbeing' and 'relationships and sexuality' components of the Curriculum. Unfortunately however, the prevalence of drugs and sexual abuse in society and on social media means that children are being exposed to these serious issues earlier and more frequently. As reported in our previous article, the rise in the use of illicit performance enhancing drugs amongst school children, including amongst those as young as twelve, in an increasingly competitive school sporting environment, emphasises the importance of early education as a preventative tool to help children understand the negative impacts of drug-taking.
In an age where even elite professional athletes are injecting themselves with mysterious substances, often under the supervision of 'health professionals', it is hard to say that the messages around sport remain clear. One also needs only to look at the increasing range of bodybuilding supplements that are currently available, and which are frequently taken by young people, to realise that there is a need for a modern curriculum of drug education.
As pointed out by ACARA, the inclusion of the alcohol and drugs aspect of the Curriculum is not a 'radical change'. The Health and Physical Education module 'largely reflects, with some updates to account for the changing times we live in, existing state and territory curriculum that has been taught in schools across Australia for decades'.
ACARA also points out that schools and teachers have the ultimate discretion to determine how their students are taught about alcohol and other drugs to ensure that the content being taught is age appropriate. For example, children in Year 3 are not taught about illicit drugs. The mandatory content in Year 3 in this area is about understanding health practices and behaviours and how students should respond to them. Examples may include how to respond if they were offered a panadol for a headache by a classmate and not a person in authority, the risks of sharing their asthma pump and the reasons for EpiPens at schools.
What is clear is that schools play an important role in helping to prevent drug use problems amongst young people. In addition to teaching students about drug use (illicit and non-illicit) and how to respond to certain situations where drugs may be available to them, schools also assist students to understand the consequences of drug abuse by having policies in place which apply to various kinds of drugs, including alcohol. Such policies should reflect the laws regarding illicit drug use and should also have an educational purpose where the law is less clear e.g. the abuse of prescription medication.
Students should be aware of, and understand, these policies which should complement the content of the school curriculum. These policies should make it clear that in addition to harming themselves, illegal drug use/alcohol consumption by students (including the misuse of prescription medication) can increase the risk of injury to others, as well as triggering the school's related disciplinary procedures. Hopefully, a strong focus on the right type of drug education, reinforced throughout a child's schooling life, will lead to better outcomes in later life.
Does your school's drug and alcohol policy fit with what it is teaching?