Our survey told us…

Before we go into schools to speak to older students (Y11 and older, or equivalent in non-English schools), we ask them to complete a survey. This is invaluable in planning the session we deliver to them, as it tells us what they’ve had before in terms of drugs education, as well as providing an opportunity to ask specific questions or make comments.


We also ask the students questions focused on their perceptions of substance use, behaviours and motivations in their year group. Again, this gives us a good sense of what is around and going on for them, so we can develop content that is the most relevant and useful for them, as well as being up to date and evidence-based.


There are differences between settings – sometimes we see a higher awareness of a certain substance at a particular school or college, or a higher proportion of students citing a factor such as academic pressure as a possible motivation for drug use – and we pass the data (which is all anonymized) to staff, which they often find useful in planning their wider drugs education and PSHE provision. But there is also a lot of commonality, and this is where the collated data really comes into its own.


Last academic year, over 6,500 15-18 year olds responded to the survey; we delivered workshops to significantly more than this, but no survey gets a 100 per cent completion rate! In response to the question “Which are the main substances people in your year group use, if they do?”, vaping was the most popular answer at 95 per cent, followed by alcohol at 93 per cent, cigarettes at 76 per cent, and cannabis/weed at 74 per cent. The next most commonly given answer was cannabis edibles at 44 per cent, then nitrous oxide at 30 per cent, ketamine at 27 per cent and cocaine at 20 per cent; other substances ranked lower.


In response to the question “Which substances do you think cause people in your year group most problems, if anyone does have problems?”, vaping was again the top answer (given by 70 per cent of those completing the survey), followed by alcohol at 56 per cent, cigarettes at 41 per cent and cannabis/weed at 37 per cent. Again, other substances ranked lower.


Vaping also scored highly in terms of acceptability. When answering the question “What attitude do you think people your age have towards substance use?” respondents were able to select “OK to use regularly”, “OK to use occasionally”, “OK to try” or “not OK” for each substance. 62 per cent regarded regular use of vaping as acceptable, with alcohol next at 52 per cent. The “OK to use occasionally” figures were 18 per cent and 36 per cent for vaping and alcohol respectively, with cannabis/weed also at 36 per cent for this, and cannabis edibles and cigarettes both at 32 per cent. The highest level of unacceptability, gaining the greatest score for “not OK”, was benzodiazepines/Xanax at 65 per cent, with steroids, LSD, cocaine, MDMA/ecstasy, ketamine and magic mushrooms all scoring over 45 per cent against this response.


Students were asked about the reasons for someone their age using drugs, with “curiosity”, “socializing” and “for fun/relaxation” the highest rated responses. However, over 50 per cent stated “pressure” as one of the three main reasons they thought someone their age might use drugs, with around 42 per cent giving “coping with problems” and 28 per cent “addiction” in their top three.


The insight provided by this survey is invaluable, revealing how trends, attitudes and behaviours evolve. This informs our work for individual settings, but also at a wider level, and reinforces how vital education is in helping young people navigate the situations that they might find themselves in. It also lends weight to the importance of enforcement of regulations in reducing availability and exposure, dovetailing well with other similar data such as that gathered from 11-15 years olds in 2021 and published by NHS Digital in 2022.


For us, it is a stark reminder of the spectrum of issues, risks and challenges adolescents face, and which they are often ill-equipped to make decisions about. We will keep doing what we are doing, not just providing drugs education to young people, but listening to their experiences, and working across communities to support them in making safer choices.