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Turning around young drug users

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Young drug users can often be written off as beyond help - excluded from education and in no position to find work - and best dealt with through intervention by social services and the police. As an approach it’s very expensive, bringing all the associated costs of welfare payments, potential crime and lack of contribution to local economies.

It’s becoming a key issue for local government given the decline in opportunities for school-leavers and risk of much larger numbers of NEETs - those not in education, employment or training. At the same time, government policy stresses the need for schools to have greater autonomy - and take greater responsibility - for finding their own methods for dealing with permanently excluded pupils.

The pressure is on to find solutions. In South Wales we are running a scheme for young people living in one of the most disadvantaged areas of the UK who have fallen out of “normal” society. Funded by the Welsh Assembly in support of seven local authorities (incluing Caerphilly County BC, Newport City Council, Rhondda Cynon Taff County BC, Monmouthshire CC, Blaenau Gwent County BC, Torfaen County BC and Merthyr Tydfill County BC), the charity CfBT Education Trust has devised its own unique approach to helping turn lives around, and the evidence shows it works.

More than 300 young drug users have taken part in the Turnaround Project so far. The great majority have a record of offending, are below Level 1 in literacy and numeracy - but have all indicated at some level that they now wish to give up substance misuse and habits of offending. A survey of outcomes has shown that as a result of the work, 61% completely rejected or significantly reduced their substance misuse, 80% avoided re-offending while on the scheme and 71% changed their lives by returning to school, going to college, joining training programmes or getting work. One hundred per cent of parents said the programme had made a positive impact on their child.

The programme takes place for 25 hours a week over 11 weeks and is based on a cognitive behavioural approach. This way Turnaround encourages young people to step outside their day-to-day problems - their negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours - and to start to focus on their helpful thought processes, communication/motivational skills and knowledge-set, as a means of developing coping strategies, opportunities and self-confidence.

The curriculum is personal and tailored, including intensive assessment and support to identify the core strengths and needs of individuals. It helps develop young peoples’ core skills to re-engage with their community. A transition stage also helps them settle into a new period of stability and personal responsibility as they take up education, training or job opportunities.

The success of the programme in changing attitudes and behaviours is based on the intensity of the programme and the time and attention invested into each individual at a personal level - a reflection of the commitment and enthusiasm of staff. Alternatives to mainstream education and training of this kind are inevitably more costly than school places, but providing effective routes for all young people into community life is crucial - and likely to be increasingly important - if the UK is to avoid broken communities as a result of the economic downturn. 

Keith Griffiths, project co-ordinator, Turnaround Project

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