Addressing school effects on drug use

Research shows that schools can be a major negative influence on pupils’ drug use. Adam Fletcher explains

CHILDREN BORN DURING THE MID-1990s are highly connected, “digital natives” of Generation Z. They have grown up with MySpace and mobile phones, illegal downloads, and instant messaging. However, they are also growing up at a time when experimentation with drugs often begins during the early teenage years and pathways into regular drug use have been normalised. As such, reducing the harms associated with drug use is a major public health concern.

What we know
● There is evidence of school effects on pupils’ drug use.
● These are likely to occur because, at some schools, drug use is an important source of identity, bonding, and “escape”.
● Interventions which promote a positive school culture and reduce pupil disengagement would complement existing drug education interventions.
● Broader social policies relating to school targets and educational assessment may also influence rates of pupils’ drug use.

Although secondary schools continue to be the focus for policies aiming to reduce youth drug use and drug-related harm, traditional classroom-based drug education has proved insufficient for changing pupils’ behaviour. At the same time, school-based surveys consistently find large differences between schools in the proportion of pupils reporting drug use, differences which remain after accounting for the effects of schools having different intakes and being in different neighbourhoods. This suggests that how schools are run and their ethos influence overall levels of drug use, and that some schools have toxic effects.

In other words, not only is drug education in schools insufficient on its own for reducing drug-related harms, but this focus also distracts us from the broader, school-level institutional drivers. I have reviewed the evidence from trials and longitudinal observational studies undertaken in the US, UK, and Australia, and these consistently report “school effects” on young people’s drug use – as much as a third may be explained by school factors. This suggests that by changing the way schools are run, and the education policies that influence this, it might be possible to bring about significant population-level reductions in drug-related harm.

Drug use for status, safety, and stress relief

So how can schools influence pupils’ drug use? With this question in mind, I have undertaken qualitative case study research and interviewed British secondary school pupils and teachers to explore the relationship between school experiences and young people’s attitudes towards, and use of, drugs. Their accounts consistently suggest three “pathways” through which schools might inadvertently increase rates of drug use among some pupils.

First, the pressure to succeed in exam league tables seems to cause some schools to neglect those pupils who are unlikely to achieve the “holy grail” of 5 A* to C GCSE passes. As one pupil summed it up: “I get pissed off that school just wants everyone to be perfect and get good marks”. The relentless emphasis on academic and sporting success at school alienates some of the most disadvantaged pupils. Unlike the “school stars”, these pupils can be disconnected from the mainstream markers of success and progress. Drug use offers them an alternative, attainable marker of status and identity.

Second, one of the case study schools was an inner-city secondary school, which the pupils and teachers described as a “rough”, “tough”, and “scary” school, characterised by bullying and the threat of violence. Within this “risky” environment, cannabis and other drug use appeared to diffuse through the school as a way for some pupils to “fi t in” and be “safe” at school. For some of these pupils, a vicious circle then ensued whereby the process of “fitting in” and staying “safe” through cannabis use exacerbates already difficult and conflicting relationships with teachers and parents, entrenching disengagement from education and leading to further drug use. As a female pupil in Year 10 who identified herself as a heavy cannabis smoker put it: “I’m safe with the boys here… but we are the bad ones, the rude ones…”

Third, drug use can also be a response to the pressures and lack of social support encountered by some pupils in secondary school. One explained: “If someone can’t be bothered about school anymore, or like you’re having a bad day, then just have a spliff in the morning then it’s a good day; pressure and stress can make people take drugs”. Anxiety about schoolwork can also be an important pathway into drug use among even some of the most high-achieving teenagers. Our research revealed that teachers knew pupils who had resorted to sniffing solvents to “escape” the pressure of high-stakes, public exams and parental expectations.

Detoxing schools

In short, the explanation for young people’s drug use may lie as much with institutions as with individuals. This is not to say that schools force some pupils to use drugs. Young people make their own choices – but seem to be doing so in response to their experiences at school. Schools are likely to vary in how much they can engage, ensure the safety of, and support their pupils, and this might explain differences in rates of drug use between schools. Working to make schools more engaging, safe, and supportive could be a good way to reduce drug use and perhaps address other public health issues, such as mental health and emotional well-being.

The World Health Organisation’s model of Health Promoting Schools aims to employ such a “whole-school approach”, and one of its goals is to reduce drug use. However, at present there is little guidance for school leaders on how to do this effectively. My research suggests where schools might concentrate their efforts in order to reduce drug use:

  • Through working harder to make disadvantaged young people enjoy their learning, recognising pupils’ varied achievements, and promoting a sense of belonging;
  • By reducing bullying and aggression to ensure pupils feel safe at school; and
  • By providing more social support for pupils, for example, via personal tutors and mentors.

There are some examples of successful interventions that aim to promote a positive school culture and reduce pupil disengagement, while addressing individual knowledge, skills, and peer norms. The Gatehouse Project, which was trialled in Australia, involved health promoters working with schools to promote a positive school environment, improve teacher–pupil relationships, and to specifically address the features of each school that pupils liked least. Three years after the start of the project, fewer young people in the intervention group than the control group reported having used cannabis in the last six months. Such approaches should now be piloted in a wider range of settings.

At the same time as making changes to individual schools, broader education policies also need to encourage schools to be more engaging, safe, and supportive. However, at present the narrow range of indicators of school effectiveness, which usually focus only on academic achievement, provide no incentive for schools to work in such a way. Policy makers need to recognise the potentially toxic effects of league tables and greater “competition” between schools.

Meanwhile, the stress of constant testing and public exams puts unnecessary pressure on even the most academic pupils, who need to find new ways to “escape”.

About the author

Adam Fletcher is a lecturer in sociology and social policy at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. His research focuses on the social determinants of young people’s health, particularly the effects of schools on health and well-being.

Further reading

Fletcher A, Bonell C, and Hargreaves J (2008), School Effects on Young People’s Drug Use: A Systematic Review of Intervention and Observational Studies. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 209–220.

Bonell C, and Fletcher A (2008), Addressing the Wider Determinants of Problematic Drug Use: Advantages of Whole-population Over Targeted Interventions. International Journal of Drug Policy, 19, 267–269.

Fletcher A, Bonell C, Sorhaindo A, and Strange V (2009), How Might Schools Infl uence Young People’s Drug Use? Development of Theory from Qualitative Case-study Research. Journal of Adolescent Health, 45, 126–132.


June 2012