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Perspective: Beat drugs with a bit more creativity; It's the arts which give us the real thrills in life, says Sarah Evans.

Byline: Sarah Evans

So our young people are more likely to drink too much alcohol, do drugs and get pregnant than their counterparts elsewhere. Reactions as usual tend to attribute blame to schools - of course - and parents.

I have now taught in schools for over 25 years and have seen health education programmes grow from a little to very comprehensive. Certainly in the last ten years, I have never come across a school, either through inspection or general visits where drug and alcohol abuse is not a part of the curriculum along with sex education.

Neither have I ever met a parent who is unaware or unconcerned about these issues. They may well disagree about the best ways to guide young people but the desire to guide is there.

There are no simple answers to these problems. If there were, we would all be putting them in place. As everyone knows, among a group of young people who have participated in the same health education programme, some will use legal drugs sensibly and illegal drugs not at all, others will abuse their bodies with anything that comes their way. Within one family, one offspring will be sensible, another with the same influences and controls, will be the reverse.

I wonder whether the bleak picture is in part down to the nature of education and values in the broadest sense that, as a society, we have, perhaps unconsciously, come to accept. I have had an opportunity in recent weeks to talk to year 6 pupils and been very struck by what a rather arid year it is for them. 'What is happening at school at the moment?' 'We're practising key stage 2 papers again'.

Of course, the conventional wisdom is that in year 6, the children are all geared up and making great progress which is then tragically lost when they enter secondary school and key stage 3. The reality is practising exam papers month after month. The opportunity for children to create has been pushed to the parameters of education. There is no time to write poetry, make music, understand their experiences by forming them into a new creation.

Yet it is in creativity that our answer may lie. The Romantic movement believed that the creative artist was man at his most god-like. The instinct to create is in every one of us and is an immensely powerful and satisfying drive. Yet as a society, we value consumerism far more.

The message that young people receive is that happiness will lie in consuming. It doesn't. Many cannot afford the flashy luxury items that are constantly advertised and suffer the resentment and frustration that brings. The answer doesn't lie in them having these items - digital TVs etc - because those that can afford to acquire them find the promise they offer illusory. Material goods are sold by linking them to values we do desire: love, happiness, beauty, warmth in human relationships, new horizons. But they are not those things and don't automatically bring them.

Our education system is operating in a not dissimilar way. Work hard to get a level 5, a grade C or above and so on. The worth of knowledge for itself, completely separate from assessment, is lost. Even more so is the value of creativity. Yet it is the act of creation that can offer all the highs and lows of the drug culture and more besides.

I sat this week in an absolutely packed Symphony Hall at one of the Children's Classic Concerts that the English Symphony Orchestra bring regularly to Birmingham. Every child I saw had some sort of instrument. They appeared absorbed and focused, even in such an enormous group.

To encourage creativity in young people, this sort of opportunity is essential and it is most welcome that the Government has just announced money to develop work between arts groups and schools. Also the secretary of state has set up groups to look at developing the curriculum in various ways - one being how the contribution of the arts to pupils' education can be maximised and another aiming to provide guidance for schools on ways to promote pupils' creativity.

If young people can find satisfaction in writing a song, drawing a cartoon, completing a novel, choreographing a dance, they will not need to get drunk, or overdose.

To create - to bring into being - to cause to exist - to form out of nothing. Our ability to do this is a part of what makes us human. It won't necessarily make anyone millions but it will satisfy the soul.

Sarah Evans is headmistress at King Edward VI High School for Girls, Edgbaston.


Young people in Britain drink more than teenagers anywhere else in Europe
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 7, 2001
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