Alcohol is everywhere in my school.
In recent years there has been an encouraging downward trend in underage drinking in the UK with the number of 11-15 year olds who have drunk a whole alcoholic drink at least once dropping to 38% in 2014 from 61% in 2003. Despite this, The Drinkaware Monitor, an Ipsos MORI survey of young people and their parents’ drinking attitudes and behaviours, highlights that one in nine (11%) of 10-17-year-olds missed a day of work, school or college in the last 12 months
We gave Simon Gallacher, who is currently headteacher of a small primary school in Bradford. Some editorial space to write on the influence that Alcohol has in his school. He has previously taught in and around West Yorkshire and has a particular interest in PE, PSHE and English.
Not all the time, obviously. But at Christmas and at the end of the summer term it is around every corner you turn and behind every cupboard door you open.
At the Christmas Fair we run a bottle tombola – in the preceding days, children are asked to come into school wearing non-uniform in return for bringing in a bottle. 90% of the bottles we receive are alcohol (ranging from cheap cider to single malt whisky) – the other 10% being orange squash or brown sauce. We repeat the trick at the summer fair too; after all it makes the most profit every time and the parents love it. Every fair I have ever been to has had a bottle stall centre stage.
Teachers are bombarded with bottles of booze at the end of the year. Children stagger in under the weight of a box of 12 cans of lager, or a cardboard holder of 6 bottles of rosé for the teaching assistants.
It was only after a friend of mine lost their brother to alcoholism that I began to wonder about the level at which children are immersed into the normality of alcohol. What other legal high would we allow to be used at a Summer fair? Have you ever seen a ‘Cigarette Tombola’? Would you accept 200 cigarettes from a child’s parents in return for caring for them over the year?
Why do we accept the normalisation of alcohol around children? Was it really a problem?
There is no doubt that there is a drink culture in the UK and I accept that I am part of that, after all, Friday night is usually met with a glass of beer in hand. However, I have no doubt that we need to make sure that the children have a different relationship with alcohol than my generation. Alcohol is part of the history and tradition of this country and it will no doubt be part of its future, but that future needs to be shaped and guided by parents and teachers if it is to be a culture shift. It should not be seen as the only release from stress, from work, from life.
We all know the dangers related to smoking – and this is taught well in school through Science, PSHE, PE and beyond. Allied to this approach is the general distaste that society places on smoking (no doubt helped by the smoking ban). The look of disgust on a child’s face when they see the discoloured cotton wool used in a typical Science smoking experiment usually does the job – together with the clear and unambiguous link between smoking, cancer and ill health. Education about drug use and abuse is also long standing and prevalent in the primary school; from reception children taught about the dangers of medicines through to citizenship education run in conjunction with our local PCSOs – the message is both real and shocking at times. Children can clearly talk the talk about the dangers of drugs and we hope that as they move on into secondary school they not only talk the talk but walk the walk.
But alcohol education was virtually non-existent. It was barely touched on in Science; virtually ignored in PSHE. Alcohol was just seen as a fact of life – a fact that must have been puzzling and confusing to members of our community from other faiths and cultures where alcohol is looked upon as damaging and dangerous. Following discussions at SLT and Governor level, it was decided to introduce alcohol education into mainstream PHSE and Science/Healthy Living education. There was a clear commitment to put it on the same level as sex, smoking and drug education. All decision makers were clear that the way that alcohol education was taught was crucial in ensuring that the children are able to maker the same informed choices es we hope that they end up making in relation to sex, cigarettes and drugs.
The PHSE leader scoured the internet and other published resources and settled on one main approach that they felt gave teachers the appropriate knowledge and starting points to introduce it to our KS2 children. The Drinkaware for Education materials provided teachers with the appropriate resources to anticipate possible responses from the children when dealing with controversial, sensitive and personal issues by using a worry box, much like the approach used successfully in sex education and puberty lessons. By using a similar approach in the classroom to these other key areas, the children were much more able to participate and be engaged in the content and message. As a school, we use drama and role play to good effect and we introduced them into these lessons; however the response in the classrooms often resulted in children pretending to be drunk, and staggering around. This reaction again reinforced the belief that alcohol and drunkenness was just a part of life.
It soon became clear that, unlike sex, smoking and drugs, parent education was key to the work that we were undertaking. However, identifying the problem and solving the problem are two very different things. How exactly do you approach parents and invite them to an alcohol awareness session? We have run e-safety sessions, reading sessions, sex education sessions but for some reason running alcohol awareness sessions seemed to be a step too far and we have come to a dead end. We’re advertising the Drinkaware website to parents, alongside many others and on the website there is a handy unit measuring cup and unit calorie calculator – perhaps highlighting the link between drink and diet may make a small difference but in all honesty we’re not too confident.
It may well be that it needs a concerted and coordinated national approach from Government, Health and Education to bring about the culture shift that is needed. We’ve seen the approach with the Change 4 Life campaign which has made a difference to attitudes towards physical activity at school and at home. The current attack on sugar is another example of how joined dup thinking can begin to make a change in the food culture – the big question is can something similar be undertaken with alcohol?
Taching children the dangers and effects of drinking alcohol at a young age is important. Therefore Drinkaware has launched Drinkaware for Education - a set of free, curriculum-linked, education resources suitable for PSHE classes. Tailored for 9-11 and 11-14 year olds, the resources are flexible allowing teachers to mix and match activities to suit their needs and cover subjects such as an Introduction to Alcohol; Risks and Harms; Emotional Health and Peer Pressure, the resources consist of:
- Lesson plans
- Homework activities
You can view the resources at: www.drinkaware.co.uk/education
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