New NHS survey points to decline in drug use amongst 11-15 years olds


The NHS Information Centre have published their annual survey of secondary school pupils in England in years 7 to 11 (mostly aged 11 to 15). 6,519 pupils in 219 schools completed questionnaires in the autumn term of 2011.

The survey report presents information on the percentage of pupils who have ever smoked, tried alcohol or taken drugs. The report also explores the attitudes and beliefs of school children towards drug taking and from where and from whom children obtain drugs.

Relationships between smoking, drinking and drug use are explored along with the links between smoking, drinking and drug use and other factors such as age, gender, ethnicity and previous truancy or exclusion.

Here are the key facts from the survey:

  • There has been a decline in drug use by 11 to 15 year old pupils since 2001. In 2011, 17% of pupils had ever taken drugs, compared with 29% in 2001. There were similar falls in the proportions of pupils who reported taking drugs in the last year and the last month.
  • The decline in the prevalence of drug use parallels the fall in the proportions of pupils who have ever been offered drugs, from 42% in 2001 to 29% in 2011.
  • Less than one in ten pupils (9%) thought that it would be OK for someone of their age to try cannabis once to see what it’s like, and fewer still thought it would be OK to sniff glue (7%) or to try cocaine (2%).
  • A quarter (25%) of pupils had tried smoking at least once in 2011, with 5% of pupils who smoked regularly (at least once a week).
  • The proportion of pupils who drank alcohol in the last week has fallen from 26 per cent in 2001 to 12 per cent in 2011.

But, how reliable are these results?

Surveys are notoriously unreliable, especially when you are asking children about behaviour that they may wish to conceal from adults or exaggerate to their peers.

The survey team tried to mitigate against these problems by collecting data in school classrooms rather than at home and repeatedly assuring that responses would be treated confidentially.

They also carried out two investigations to test the reliability of the responses:

  1. Between 1990 and 1998 the survey obtained saliva samples from pupils in half of the participating schools. The samples were tested for the presence of cotinine, a major metabolite of nicotine that indicates recent exposure to tobacco smoke, in order to validate the estimates of the prevalence of smoking derived from the questionnaire. Results from these surveys consistently indicated that children were largely honest about their smoking; only a few children in each survey had saliva cotinine levels that clearly contradicted their self-reported smoking behaviour, and there were no significant differences in the prevalence of smoking between children who supplied saliva samples for testing and those who did not.
  2. Since questions about drugs were introduced in 1998, the questionnaire has asked about Semeron, a fictional drug. In 2011, only 8 pupils (0.1% of the total sample) reported that they had ever taken Semeron; this matches the experience of previous years, and lends support to the view that most pupils do not exaggerate their drug use. However, reported rates of awareness may be exaggerated, given that 12% of pupils claimed to have heard of Semeron (this, too, has remained at a similar level since the question was introduced).


Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England in 2011 (PDF). NHS Information Centre, 26 Jul 2012.

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