Volatile substance misuse: a review of interventions: monograph series no. 65

7.4 Education, training and employment

Page last updated: 2008

Young people who leave school in the early secondary years are at increased risk of subsequent harmful drug use, though whether both early school leaving and drug use are due to underlying developmental factors is unclear (Loxley et al., 2004). The association between regular VSM and school non-completion is strong (Bates et al., 1997; Best et al., 2004; Chadwick et al., 1990; Flescher et al., 2002). Among a group of volatile substance using clients attending a youth drug treatment service in Melbourne, 69% were found to be either delayed in or have dropped out of school (Lane, 2005).

If, as is frequently argued, boredom is a major reason for VSM, it is logical that keeping young people engaged in day programs—be they school, training or employment—will at least to some extent quarantine their drug use. Alternative education facilities are required for young people who find it difficult to maintain an engagement with the mainstream system, a problem which frequently co-occurs with VSM. Some young people who have left school during a period when they were using inhalants feel unwelcome to return (Walmby, 2003). Flexible and supportive school re-entry options are also required (Butt, 2004).

There are few opportunities for secondary education or training in remote Australian Indigenous communities. Even where schools are available, attendance is low and educational outcomes are extremely poor (Collins, 1999). Mosey found that people in remote communities believe that the lack of opportunities for education contributes to their young people's sniffing. Increased sniffing has been observed during times when schools are closed; on weekends and during school holidays (Senior et al., 2006). Interestingly, when one community did manage to get secondary education on site, most of the sniffers began attending (Mosey, 1997).

The Yarrenyty Arltere Learning Centre (formerly known as 'Detour') was established specifically to address VSM in Alice Springs town camps. Young people involved with the project have successfully re-integrated into school (Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee, 2006). Components include a primary school, art program for adults, accredited adult education courses, alcohol and other drug outreach and a range of other health and welfare services and programs. Tangentyere Council, which manages the program, identified the following aspects of the Learning Centre as central to its success:

Canadian treatment programs make remedial education a central part of their programs. Each treatment centre has a teacher. Some outstation programs offer training opportunities as part of their overall program (Barrett 1994). Kavanagh (2006) has argued that a similar educational component should be incorporated in Australian treatment programs.

Care must be taken to ensure educational programs are age appropriate for participants. A program in Mt Isa, Queensland, included placement of young people who were regular users of volatile substances in a primary school to assist them with numeracy and literacy. Many of the young people involved were actually of high school age. No teacher was assigned by the education authority to deal with the particular needs of this group and the young people involved dropped out (Polsen & Chiauzzi, 2003).

A skills training approach was implemented at Yirrkala in 1984, under the auspices of the Northern Territory Education Department. A teacher and an Aboriginal liaison officer worked with a group of 17 petrol sniffers who had not been attending school regularly, giving them the opportunity to develop work skills by engaging in tasks such as lawn mowing, house cleaning and repair jobs. The program is reported to have resulted in both improved school attendance and reduced sniffing among the youths concerned (Commonwealth of Australia 1985, Evidence, p. 1365).

However, without the prospect of future employment, there is little incentive for young people from remote communities to complete education. Senior provides an example of a young woman who completed Year 12 outside her remote community but commenced sniffing petrol on her return when there was nothing for her to do there (Senior et al., 2006).

Training schemes are resource intensive. A plan to train young people as youth workers implemented by the Institute for Aboriginal Development and the NPY Women's Council failed for lack of support structures available to students (Shaw, 2002).

Paid employment is very important in giving people (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) a sense of self-worth and an incentive to reduce the use of harmful drugs. Burns concludes that the introduction of Avgas in conjunction with employment programs was critical to success at Maningrida. Four months after Avgas was introduced at Maningrida in 1993 (along with employment and skills training programs), petrol sniffing ceased. When 27 sniffers from this community were interviewed in 1992, only 7 per cent were employed; however, in 1994 the proportion had risen to 63 per cent (Burns, Currie et al., 1995).

One innovative approach is that adopted in Cape York where young people were engaged in a behaviour modification program (James, 2002). As part of this program, young people were involved in an enterprise distilling and selling eucalyptus oils.