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Key principles of effective prevention education

Education is a crucial element of broader efforts to prevent negative outcomes, and school-based programmes therefore provide an important context in which to deliver universal preventative interventions. There is a wealth of evidence to show that classroom-based prevention education, when taught in line with best practice, can have a significant impact across a range of risk behaviours.

Reviews of prevention programmes show that they have been associated with positive outcomes in relation to alcohol, tobacco and cannabis consumption (Foxcroft, 2011), as well as healthy eating, exercise, and taking safety precautions like wearing a cycle helmet (Langford et al., 2014). Studies also show improvements in mental health and social skills, and reductions in antisocial behaviour (Sklad et al., 2012). Sex and relationships education programmes have been shown to reduce risky behaviours and negative outcomes (such as unplanned pregnancies) and to increase the chances of going on to have healthier relationships (Kirby and Laris, 2009; UNESCO, 2009; NICE, 2010; NATSAL, 2012).

There is further evidence demonstrating the link between social and emotional education programmes and academic attainment (Sklad et al., 2012; Durlak et al., 2011), showing that this learning improves academic performance. Efforts to build resilience have also been shown to have a positive impact both on risk-taking behaviours and on academic attainment (Public Health England, 2014). More generally, associations between mental wellbeing and good academic performance (Gutman and Vorhaus, 2012) suggest that programmes which have positive outcomes for pupils’ wellbeing could also indirectly affect their academic attainment.

The effectiveness of prevention education programmes are, inevitably, affected by the quality of implementation (for example, see Durlak and DuPre, 2008). Evidence suggests that the quality of provision is variable at present. In English schools, PSHE education is the most common mode of delivery for education around key areas including substance misuse, online safety, sexual health, healthy relationships, mental health and emotional wellbeing. However, Ofsted’s most recent review of provision noted that it was ‘not yet good enough’ in schools, pointing to a lack of confidence among teachers, who are often not trained in the subject (Ofsted, 2013).
At present, opportunities for teachers to develop expertise in prevention education are limited. Reviews of initial teacher education (ITE) providers show that coverage of different topics is variable – while child protection and emotional health are covered consistently, sex and relationships and substance misuse are often not covered. As a whole, the range of topics related to health and wellbeing can form less than 5% of overall teacher training (Shepherd et al., 2013), and later opportunities to specialise in prevention education can be prohibitively expensive: following withdrawal of government funding for the PSHE CPD Programme, the number of teachers training in the subject has fallen by 90% (Scott, 2015).

Unless good practice is followed, a significant proportion of the prevention education currently delivered in English schools may have little or no impact. It is also possible that, in some sensitive areas such as teaching on mental health and wellbeing, poor practice may lead to negative effects.

While the lack of access to training for teachers in effective prevention education continues, the development and dissemination of effective practice, based on up-to-date research, is crucial to raising standards of prevention education across the country. These principles can both raise the quality of teaching in individual schools, and additionally inform the development of curricula, resources and training programmes. This report aims to outline recent research into the determinants of effective practice across a range of prevention education programmes.