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High school choice affects alcohol, drug use

18 April 2005

High school choice affects alcohol, tobacco, drug use in young people

Which high school your child attends can make a difference to their consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and drugs – and parents can probably feel the difference, a visiting professor at the University of Otago says.

“Our study showed that the schools where pupils reported being more involved and valued were schools with lower rates of smoking, drinking and drugs,” University of Glasgow Youth and Health programme director Professor Patrick West says.

“Those schools managed to generate a particular ethos or culture which involves young people and creates conditions where they are less likely to smoke, drink or have experience of drugs.”

Prof West is visiting the University of Otago as a Community Trust of Otago Visiting Professor to collaborate with Social and Behavioural Research in Cancer Group researchers Dr Tony Reeder and Helen Darling in setting up a prospective study of smoking in young people in New Zealand.

Prof West is head of a programme of inter-linked studies on young people’s health, funded by the British Medical Research Council, which involves tracking the health of two cohorts of young people in Glasgow born 12 years apart. He has a particular interest in school, lifestyle and peer group influences on health behaviours, like smoking.

The recent study looked at whether pupil’s nutrition, smoking, drinking and drug taking behaviour varied between schools, and if so whether those differences were due to schools or pupils.

“We found big differences between schools in the numbers of pupils smoking, drinking and taking drugs - but not in nutrition which is based almost entirely on home influence. The evidence is that schools do have an influence on the health behaviour of their pupils,” Prof West says.

The next stage of the study is to evaluate exactly what schools are doing to foster better health behaviour in their pupils, and to what extent classroom health education plays a part.

“It’s tantalising. We have got half of the story but we don’t have the other half so I can’t say yet with any certainty whether the schools that do best are the schools that teach better health education. That is something we will be looking at when I get back to Glasgow. But certainly the schools that involve their pupils appear to have better health outcomes.”

When investigators entered each school to carry out surveys they wrote down their impressions of the school, including how welcome they felt, how noisy and crowded the school was, and the general atmosphere.

The impressions were later scored from 1 to 9 and a correlation was discovered between the scoring of schools and the smoking rates.

“I wouldn’t go to a major conference with that result because it is not an objective measure, but it is interesting that our feelings matched the pupils’ attitude towards the school and their health behaviours. It’s intriguing because it is the sort of thing parents might feel when they go into one school rather than another,” Prof West says.

The study tracked over 2000 children from 11 years to 15 years using questionnaires and interviews, and factored into account background conditions such as social class, family structure, parenting styles, disposable income and parents’ own behaviours.

While in Dunedin, Prof West is giving a public lecture entitled “Young People, Health & Social Change: Pointers From The Far North?” in the Barnett Lecture Theatre, First Floor, Dunedin Public Hospital at 1pm on Wednesday April 20.

The talk will draw on data from the two cohorts and focus on the changing lifestyles of young people in Glasgow.


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