TACKLING drug and substance misuse, and raising all-round safety awareness starts at a young age in Gwent, as EMMA MACKINTOSH reports.

Children as young as five are being taught the risks associated with medicines and issues around drug safety in Wales’ schools, by a Welsh Government and police initiative which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

Across Gwent, lessons on safety and substance abuse are taking place throughout the year with specially trained police officers going into hundreds of schools, putting what was once an informal, ad-hoc regime onto a more permanent footing.

Established in September 2004, the scheme, known as the All-Wales School Liaison Core Programme, continues to be funded by Welsh Government and Wales’ four police forces, and was originally devised as part of a 10-year strategy to reduce the harm associated with drink and drug misuse in Wales.

Whereas previously, police officers who were not trained in teaching methods were often called out at late notice to talk to students about things like fireworks or bonfires around Guy Fawkes Night or Halloween, the new programme could train them to give consistent, accurate safety messages on an ever-growing number of topics.

Lyndon Samuel, schools coordinator for Gwent Police, explained: “It was a case of us realising that the best way forward is to be proactive and tackle issues that might not be the easiest to tackle.

“This is a properly resourced programme delivered by trained officers in a professional, responsible and positive way.”

Gwent’s 17 school community police officers, trained to teach youngsters, deliver lessons on drug and substance misuse, social behaviour, community and safety to 271 schools and specialist units across the five counties, while across the whole of Wales, the programme’s reach among five to 16-year-olds is 98.5 per cent.

In the last academic year, there were 6,181 lessons delivered on alcohol and drugs in schools in Wales, including just over 1,000 in Gwent.

This involved 428 primary school lessons, 522 in secondary schools, 29 so-called “cross phase” lessons including primary and secondary education and 28 others in specialist or referral units.

Wales’ youngest pupils, going through the foundation phase, take part in lessons such as “Right or Wrong?”, “People Who Help Us”, and “Playing Safe”, working up to sessions on mobile phones for Key Stage 2 and alcohol for Key Stage 3.

Key Stage 4 would go through sessions understanding sexual consent and “No means no” as well as the dangers of sexual exploitation and car crime.

“The idea is not to preach,” said Mr Samuel. “But to give pupils the correct information so they will hopefully take the correct decisions as they grow up.

“Take the internet for example. We’ve got it now whether we like it or not.

“If you say ‘it’s bad, you shouldn’t use it’, you are really wasting your time,” he said. “The internet is a positive tool if used properly and if you are aware of the dangers, hopefully you won’t fall into traps and pitfalls.”

The programme’s lessons, which are bilingual and backed up by the website schoolbeat.org, are reviewed and updated and the officers can respond to issues in individual schools by giving assemblies.

In recent weeks the team has visited Hendre Juniors in Caerphilly, Pantside Primary in Newbridge, Crumlin High Level Primary, Upper Rhymney Primary, Maesglas Primary in Newport and Rhiw Syr Dafydd Primary School in Oakdale to name but a few. There are usually two secondary schools per officer as well as those schools’ feeder primaries.

Mr Samuel said that even with the youngest pupils, aged five, officers can explain the facts and the dangers around medicines and the types of people who might ordinarily give them to them.

“As early as five we would be looking at who should give you medicines and who shouldn’t, safety with strangers, people who help us, the five emergency services and playing safe,” said Mr Samuel.

“It’s proactive. Last year we made the equivalent of 116,000 pupil contacts in Gwent by going into over 100 schools and delivering special assemblies.

“We support Operation Be a Nice Guy around Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes Night, and we’ve organised more than 200 conferences at schools where officers have dealt with 1,000 incidents using the SchoolBeat protocol.”

As part of the scheme, schools can call their own individually assigned officer if there are any non-emergency problems such as bullying, and the officer could come in and, with the weight of authority, try and encourage pupils to sort out their problems.

“Hopefully if there were problems we would nip things in the bud at an early stage,” said Mr Samuel. “If there was a disagreement between two youngsters or two families...we live in a very I.T. focused society so there could be internet bullying. Usually it can be resolved amicably by talking about it or setting up conferences.

“The fact that the schools programme is delivered by serving officers does give them and the programme status,” said Mr Samuel. “They have studied for a foundation degree in learning support at Swansea Metropolitan and they undergo ongoing training.

“I’m particularly pleased with the reception the school officers get,” he said. “Because they are working with youngsters from primary level, they build up a lot of trust, and schools look upon the officers as a very useful critical friend and resource they can turn to.”

The programme also manifests itself in visits by pupils to specially set-up scenarios which tests their knowledge of safety by the Crucial Crew.

Mr Samuel said: “I am really pleased as co-ordinator to be leading a dedicated professionally trained team who gives schools consistent, positive messages which will hopefully set (pupils) up for the future.”