£1.3m for four years from December 2011 from the Big Lottery Fund's Realising Ambition programme
Hundreds of millions each year are spent on specialist services and hospital admissions for young people involved in substance misuse, according to a report published this year by the Early Intervention Foundation.
LifeSkills, a programme developed in the US by Professor Gilbert Botvin, aims to prevent drug and alcohol misuse among young people by targeting the social and psychological factors behind it. The programme has been successfully scaled up in 35 countries and evaluated through randomised controlled trials over three decades. It has been given top ratings for its evidence base by organisations including the Early Intervention Foundation.
The strength of this evidence made children's charity Barnardo's eager to trial the approach in UK schools.
"We were particularly keen on the reach this programme can have," says Lauren Spiers, children's services manager at Barnardo's.
LifeSkills principal consultant Alayne MacArthur came to the UK in May 2012 to deliver three days of training to eight Barnardo's staff, enabling them to deliver the programme in primary and secondary schools and youth centres in Liverpool, Dundee, Swansea and Belfast from September that year.
The programme has two versions - Essential for eight to 11-year-olds and Advanced for those aged 11 to 14 - with each split into three levels. The programmes cover three core components - personal competence such as decision-making, problem solving and handling emotions; social competence, helping young people communicate clearly and develop healthy relationships; and drug-resistance skills, helping them resist peer pressure.
Sessions include a combination of coaching, discussion and "behavioural rehearsal", which involves practising healthy responses to different situations. "It's not enough to teach young people about smoking or drugs, you need to focus on their confidence, decision-making and assertiveness skills, so that they can use these skills with their peers," explains Spiers. The Advanced programme also includes information about the prevalence and consequences of drug use.
Participants receive a copy of the LifeSkills magazine, which has activities and exercises to reinforce the key messages from the sessions. These are also outlined in letters sent to parents and carers after every session, enabling them to tackle issues at home.
More than 4,300 children and young people participated between September 2012 and last month, 85 per cent of them in schools.
An independent evaluation report was published in October this year by consultancy Outcome Imps. A total of 1,160 children aged eight to 11 completed a LifeSkills questionnaire before and after Essential Level 1, examining knowledge, attitudes and life skills. Knowledge was measured through 32 true or false questions. Results show an increase in the average number of correct answers from 62 per cent before the programme to 75 per cent afterwards.
Participants' attitudes towards alcohol use and smoking were measured by inviting them to disagree, agree or say they were "not sure" in response to statements such as "Kids who smoke cigarettes have more fun than non-smokers". The average attitude score for smoking increased from 2.73 to 3.07 and for alcohol from 2.7 to 3.02 out of five. Life skills were measured through eight questions with the average score increasing from 6.4 to 6.9 out of eight.
For 502 children who completed Level 2, overall knowledge increased from 71 to 81 per cent. Attitudes towards smoking showed an average score improvement from 3.08 to 3.26 and attitudes to alcohol improved from 3 to 3.25. The average life skills score increased from 6.7 to 7.5.
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