Drug education for young people in the UK is sketchy, at best. Many can’t remember receiving any kind of drug education at all. With teen drug use on the rise, it’s time for the government to stop burying its head in the sand and face the issue head-on.

In February, the Statistics on Drug Misuse, England 2018 revealed that 37% of 15-year olds have tried an illicit substance at least once in their life, and 30% have taken drugs in the last year. And yet pupils are getting an average of just one hour per year of drugs and alcohol education. This is a problem, because drug education is an extremely important element of any drug strategy. It prevents future misuse of drugs, instead of tackling a problem once it has already manifested itself.

Right now, what drug education students receive all depends on the school and local authority. While the sex and relationships element of PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education) is now statutory, the drugs and alcohol element is not. As a rule, when the drug and alcohol element of the PSHE programme is delivered in schools, it is outdated and non-evidence based and – as a result – doesn’t have any significant effect on prevention or harm reduction.

There are some good drug education schemes dotted around, of course, but they are few and far between, and usually referral-based rather than as part of a universal education programme. As it stands, young people are generally learning about drugs through experimenting, from other young people, and through casual discussion and observation. This means the information they’re getting is inaccurate, and that teenagers end up validating each other’s problematic drug use.

Drug education should be integrated within a more comprehensive PSHE curriculum. If you have healthy young people with a good approach to their own well-being, they will have developed some fundamental life skills that underpin a lot of their educational achievement. In other words, having good, comprehensive drug education on the curriculum will help subjects like Maths and English. In this way, wider lessons on drugs and society can have a positive impact on many aspects of school life, as well as individual pupils’ education.

It’s not all bad news. Public Health England (PHE) has been working to try and improve drug education in schools. The ADEPIS programme from Mentor UK, a leading source of evidence-based information and tools for drug and alcohol prevention as part of PSHE, has been awarded a new 3-year contract, jointly funded by PHE and the Home Office. Another scheme, called Rise Above Schools, is a forward-thinking, resilience-focused set of resources aiming to support PSHE teachers promote health and well-being amongst young people.

While a number of PSHE teachers will be benefiting from the guidance of these programmes, they have not been implemented nationwide and, depending on the school, there can be outright resistance to incorporating drug education into the PSHE programme. Although Mentor UK and Rise Above Schools are very willing to help, drugs can be a touchy subject. Those in authority sometimes don’t want to acknowledge that their pupils may benefit from being taught about drugs.

The government needs to step in to make sure that children receive a good education no matter where they go to school. Something must be done – and fast, before more young people slip through the net.