Here’s what the masterminds behind Healthy Harold want you to know: the world is changing, and Life Education Australia (LEA) is changing with it. That might please addiction experts, who have serious concerns the nation’s most popular drug education service doesn’t reach modern kids as effectively as it should.

Let’s back up for a moment.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ve had a lesson from LEA. Schools enlist the organisation to swing by with a mobile classroom, often painted with the visage of a giant, grinning giraffe. Teachers corral their students into the caravan to meet their LEA tutor; depending on the needs of the school and the age of the kids, their lessons cover everything from basic nutrition to the different ways drugs impact the human body. Along with puppet versions of Healthy Harold, LEA uses transparent mannequins to illustrate the body’s internal systems. After some quizzes and maybe a Q&A, kids step into the sunlight armed with hard facts about booze and smokes. At the very least, they emerge with some confronting truths about the length of the human digestive tract.

It’s a format LEA has utilised for nearly 40 years, but Life Education Australia CEO Kellie Sloane told Pedestrian the service constantly revamps its lessons to meet the challenges of today’s students. That innovation includes an upcoming drug curriculum, which Sloane says will revolutionise LEA’s outreach to high school students.

“All the special parts of that experience remain,” Sloane told me in a recent phone conversation. “So, Healthy Harold is still there, but he looks a tiny bit different than he did fifteen years ago. Don’t we all though?”

By some metrics, LEA is Australia’s single-largest harm minimisation service. “Everyone knows you can’t tell kids ‘just say no,” Sloane said. “So that’s not how we operate, that’s not how our teaching and learning is based.”

Still, Sloane admits the system is not foolproof. “We don’t expect that every student that sees us will ultimately make the best decisions, but we hope that we have an impact on many of them,” she said.

“We really believe that the way that were teaching and the way that we’re engaging with students is the best way of having that end result.”

In some ways, Dr Nicole Lee is more interested in what doesn’t work – and she’s worried about how effective LEA lessons really are in curbing harmful behaviours before they emerge.

As an adjunct professor at Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) and a former member of the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA), Dr Lee has spent a lot of time investigating how best to steer Australians from harmful drug habits. That includes assessing the programs she sees as detrimental.

“In my kids’ school, they had a local police person come in and talk about drugs, which is, in my mind, it’s crazy,” Dr Lee said.

“Police aren’t the best people to be talking about the health effects of drugs, I don’t think. And some of the information they gave them was problematic in my view.”

Hardline cop-talk isn’t the reason I called Dr Lee. In 2014, NCETA released a ‘report card’ ranking school alcohol education programs on the evidence for their effectiveness. D.A.R.E., the American inspiration behind countless drugs-are-bad spoofs, earned one star, marking little or no impact in the use of alcohol in schools where it was used. Seven programs did better, amassing either two or three stars. Two programs were actually found to have a negative impact, earning a flat zero stars.

Life Education Victoria fell outside of the rankings. According to Dr Lee and her team, there simply was not enough research of decent quality to say if the program altered alcohol consumption habits in the schools it was used.

Dr Lee said the drug education programs introduced in schools are “giving us this incredible opportunity for early intervention with kids, [so] we don’t want to mess that up.

“We need to make sure that every school is implementing something that is evidence-based, that we know it’s effective. The problem with Life Education is we don’t know, because there’s just not enough research on it.”

Dr Lee said it’s not only who leads the program that determines its effectiveness, but what comes after. Police officers rattling off facts about ecstasy are unlikely to sway teens from taking pills for a few reasons: research shows the unfamiliarity of guest speakers can lead to skepticism among students, and the lack of meaningful follow-up lessons can leave kids to act on little more than a set of easily-forgotten statistics. Dr Lee worries schools may implement LEA lessons the same way – as annual, one-day experiences with little emphasis on reinforcing their messages.

The programs which work are “more embedded into the curriculum, and they tend to be delivered at least in conjunction with, if not entirely by the school’s teachers,” Dr Lee said.

“That tends to have better outcomes than if a stranger kind of comes in and talks to the kids.”

LEA is “widely used and it tends to be… that one-off, once-a-year content where people go and kids come and get a bit of education, literally education, about a whole range of things – and drugs is one of them,” she said.

“It’s not embedded into the school curriculum, which is best practice.”

I asked a dozen Healthy Harold “alumni”, as Sloane calls them, about their experiences with LEA. While many recalled the distinctive ultraviolet lights in the mobile classrooms, or “that internally, your boob muscles look like halved grapefruits,” none mentioned supplementary lessons provided by their teachers.

But Sloane said the organisation has long provided teachers with extra materials to embed the program’s vital messages. “The follow-up, the pre-information we give to schools, and the post-visit support we provide to teachers and to parents means that this is an experience that endures over the whole year,” Sloane said.

“It’s not just one hit, and a lovely brand experience.”

It’s a point LEA is keen to make. After our conversation, a LEA spokesperson provided Pedestrian with a report showing exactly how its programs align with the objectives of the NSW school curriculum. LEA hopes kids will make the most of the information provided to them; it seems the same can be said for their teachers, too.

Sloane and Lee agree it’s vital for LEA to get it right. They’re not the only ones, either. The results of a University of British Columbia investigation, which were published just last month, found teens are much more receptive to drug education programs which reflect the reality of their lives – realities which often include drug use.

Researchers noted the prevalence of zero-tolerance approaches in North America and nations like Australia, saying educators should instead “integrate harm reduction principles into family responses to youth substance use.” The evidence is clear: enabling teens to discuss drug use without judgment is key to minimising the risk of their drug use.

Sloane is optimistic LEA’s upcoming “student-led approach” will do just that. “We do currently have a program in that space for early high school,” Sloane said, “but what we’ve been working on is a new program that will just take it that next step.”

She paused to reflect on the crisis LEA faced in 2017, when the Federal Government announced it would nix the organisation’s annual $500,000 funding. Health Minister Simon Birmingham backtracked after social media flooded with outrage, telling Australia “funding certainty and security is there for Healthy Harold”. The proposed budget cut lasted less than a day.

“Harold is alive and kicking and getting stronger as the organisation ages,” Sloane said.

“You’ll see a lot more of us.”

Image: Life Education NSW