Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Australian Education Union

Fiona MacGregor

Kerrie Tucker: Thank you Maureen. Now we’ll hear from Fiona MacGregor. Fiona is the Secretary for the  and her main role in the union is curriculum and professional issues but she’s also been involved in major research into students and young people at risk. Thank you Fiona.

Fiona MacGregor: Thank you and thank you very much for the opportunity to come and talk to you tonight about this very important issue. Some of you may wonder why a trade union would be involved in a particular issue like this and why a teachers’ trade union would be involved in a particular issue like this. And one of the things I’d like to underscore is the interest of our particular union in issues of social justice, access and equity for all young people, particularly in relation to education but also in relation to other services.

The AEU has a national policy on youth and contained in that policy is embedded the notion of harm minimisation in terms of schools’ approaches to drugs and drug education. The view of the AEU the question of substance abuse among the young people in schools is a health issue that is shared by the broader community and therefore is an issue that certainly needs to be addressed in schools.

There have been over time some quite serious barriers to how effectively schools can address those issues. Some of them have been related to the inadequacy of drug education programs but I think one of the significant barriers has been actually the role of the media in highlighting the issue of "drugs in schools". That role has made schools reticent: they have been deterred from being open in dealing with the issue of young people that attend the schools who are using and misusing substances. And I think that that is a very significant thing that we must acknowledge because if schools are to deal effectively with the growing group of young people in their schools who do use and misuse substances it has to be on the basis of being embedded in the school community and have an open dialogue with all people within that community.

The role of the media in highlighting and over emphasising the question of drugs in schools has certainly been very unhelpful both in our community and in other communities.

I think it’s fair to say that from the experience of the AEU and its branches and associated bodies throughout Australia that the question of substance abuse among young people is of growing concern. It’s not just illicit drugs. It’s also the misuse of alcohol and tobacco. But I think one of the things that has been of most concern is the proliferation of a variety of different drugs that young people are using.

One of the things that many of the schools in both the ACT and also inter state are seeking to develop is collaboration between the schools and support agencies because teachers are not trained to be drug counsellors or mental health workers or, necessarily, social workers but need the support and close collaboration with the community agencies, both government and non-government, that can provide those services in schools.

Some of you may have heard of the Full Service Schools Program which was an endeavour to try to co-locate services in schools to make access for students who needed the different services of community agencies much more accessible. And in a small community like Canberra I think we delude ourselves to think that because we’re small that means there is ready access when in actual fact for a lot of young people access to services is quite difficult.

One of the things that the AEU strongly supports is sound drug education programs that emphasise harm minimisation and drug education programs that are not just embedded in the curriculum area of health or physical education. But it needs to be across all curriculum areas and needs to have a focus on the mental health and well being of all students in the school.

I think one of the most critical issues – and there has been some work done here in the ACT - is how schools actually collaborate and work with people who are trained, qualified drug counsellors because drug education alone is not enough. Because once young people start to use and misuse alcohol and drugs they need other sorts of support. And there have been some very good examples of how schools in the ACT have worked very closely with some of the non-government agencies in delivering those sorts of counselling programs.

One of the things that, I think, has become of great importance is the general health and well being of young people within our communities and also within our schools. And I think here in the ACT one of the significant issues has been access to mental health services for young people. Some of you would be aware of the Legislative Assembly inquiry into mental health services that highlighted the lack of access for young people. I think that is a significant issue in terms of access for young people who have dual diagnosis, who are self medicating using drugs and alcohol. To date we still have not managed in the ACT to provide sufficient accessible services to support the needs of those young people.

I think also we need to be able to look at the development of such things as outreach services for mental health so that mental health professionals can actually work within schools so that young people are not just having to go to outside services. And I think that that’s a very important issue.

I think that the whole issue of drugs amongst our young people is a community issue. It has to be acknowledged as an important health issue and that the only way that we’ll see some resolution to the problems associated with the use and misuse of drugs and alcohol is to work collaboratively and work as a community to try and bring about change but also to increase support for the variety of different needs that young people have.