Education in schools overview

Alcohol and other drug education has been shown to be effective with young people in primary and secondary schools, provided it is based on principles of ‘effective practice’.

a) What is alcohol and other drug education in schools?

Alcohol and other drug (AOD) education in schools includes all policies, practices, programs and events in schools connected with the prevention and reduction of alcohol and other drug harms.  

AOD education involves informing and educating young people about legal drugs (i.e. pharmaceuticals, alcohol, tobacco) and illegal drugs throughout their schooling. It involves ongoing  AOD education during the primary and secondary school years.


b) Which target audience should AOD education in schools focus on? 

Alcohol and other drug education has been shown to be effective with young people in primary and secondary schools, provided it is based on principles of ‘effective practice’.

While AOD education focuses on young people as the primary target audience (the people who will benefit from the project or activity), it should also involve parents, teachers and school staff as a secondary audience due to their role as key influencers on young people.


c) How does AOD education in schools help to prevent alcohol and drug-related issues? 

Effective drug education is important because young people grow up in a world in which both legal and illegal drug use is common and is promoted by various social and cultural influences. 

Engaging students in alcohol and other drug education activities helps to shape young people’s attitudes toward alcohol and other drugs: enabling them to identify and develop strategies to prepare for risky situations, and subsequently, to make safer and healthier choices. By providing young people with the skills and knowledge to make sound choices and decisions, AOD education can help to prevent, delay and reduce young peoples’ drug use. 

As the risks associated with alcohol and drug use increase when it is started at an early age, AOD prevention that delays use even by a year, may reduce short- and long-term harm.

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that alcohol and drug-related harms are caused by the same factors as other health and social influences such as poverty, lack of education opportunities, isolation and under/unemployment. Prevention and early activities that addresses these factors (e.g. programs that teach resilience, enable social connection etc.) can make a difference.

Primary education

d) How effective is AOD education?

AOD education in schools can be effective provided it is based on principles of ‘effective practice’.  These key principles include:

  • School curriculum and practice based on evidence: Drug education should be based on what works. Evidence-informed practice uses current theory and research to design and deliver ‘programs’ or activities that are appropriate for students.
  • A whole-school approach:  Drug education activities are best understood and practised as part of a comprehensive and holistic approach to promoting health and wellbeing for all students.
  • Clear educational outcomes: Establish drug education outcomes that are appropriate to the school context.  This helps to ensure a common understanding of consistent and coordinated learnings with clear and realistic outcomes. 
  • A safe and supportive environment: A positive climate within the classroom and the broader school environment fosters learning, resilience and wellbeing in students and staff.  A safe and supportive school environment is protective factor for young people against a range of health-related risks including potential AOD misuse leading to harms. 
  • Positive and collaborative relationships: Broad approaches that integrate school, family, community and the media are likely to be more successful than a single component strategy. Strong relationships with families, external agencies and the broader community can enhance students’ sense of connectedness, and support access to relevant services.

Effective education programs need to provide students with accurate, evidence-informed information about AOD. They need to:

  • Focus on the social norms and not focus on scare tactics or worst-case scenario outcomes.
  • Be interactive and engaging.
  • Involve opportunities to engage parents or carers. 

Different approaches for primary and secondary schools

Different approaches must be used with primary and secondary schools. The key difference is that the focus of education targeting primary students should be on the underlying factors that protect against alcohol and other drug use and the subsequent harms (referred to as protective factors). This means programs that strengthen social and emotional wellbeing, resilience, a sense of belonging at school and community connection. This differs from education in secondary schools where the focus should be more explicitly on drug and alcohol-related issues – although strengthening protective factors, including those listed above, are still important.


What does and doesn’t work in AOD education in schools

What works:

Alcohol and other drug education in schools is most effective when approaches are based on principles of ‘effective practice’:

  • Located within the curriculum framework and employs interactive strategies to develop students’ knowledge, skills, attitudes and values
  • Provides accurate information and meaningful learning activities that focus on real-life contexts and challenges
  • Embedded within a whole-school approach to health and wellbeing
  • Promotes a safe, supportive and inclusive school environment
  • Promotes collaboration between students, staff, parents and broader community 
  • Includes pastoral care for students at risk and involved in drug-related incidents 
  • Taught by teachers who are resourced adequately to deliver the program
  • Responds to local needs and culturally appropriate [1,2]

What doesn't work:

Alcohol and other drug education in schools has been shown to be ineffective and increase interest in drug use when it is based on:

  • Scare tactics such as videos that show graphic or shocking outcomes. Well meaning, explicit and heavy-handed warnings about risky behaviour can have the opposite impact, in some instances encouraging young people to adopt risky AOD behaviours
  • One-off, isolated programs
  • One-off talks even when delivered by health professionals like paramedics or nurses
  • Lived experience. This can give ‘hero’ status and inadvertently risk glamourising drug use.

1. Meyer, L, C. H. (2004). Principles of school drug education. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Education Science and Training.

2. ADF 2017, ADF position on drug education in school


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