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Drunk at 12;Alcohol awareness

Apples used to be for taking to teacher. Now they go to make up the cider that is chiefly responsible for thousands of children turning up in class with hangovers. Martin Whittaker examines the escalating problem and asks why so many schools don't want to admit to it.

Emma still recalls the first time she got drunk. She was 12. It happened in a local graveyard where she and her friends used to congregate. Her first drink was a strong cider with 7.5 per cent alcohol. Occasionally she would club together with friends and splash out on a bottle of vodka.

"I passed out once. I just fell asleep and then woke up about two hours later. I was in the graveyard. I drank a big bottle of vodka with one of my friends and I got really drunk. I just sat there and passed out."

Now she is 15, she prefers Pernod and lemonade in the pub. Emma and her friends have no problem getting served on a Friday night. "When we tart ourselves up and wear the right clothes, we look 18," she says.

Her friend Zoe, 16, also started drinking at 12. Her preferred tipple was and still is peach schnapps and lemonade. She has been known to go through a whole bottle with a friend in one evening. A bottle of the spirit-based fruit drink contains 23 per cent alcohol by volume.

She says she used to persuade adults she knew to buy it for her. Now she is older she sometimes gets a bottle as a Christmas present. Occasionally her mum buys her one as a treat.

Emma, Zoe and their friends - all Year 11 pupils at a comprehensive in Gloucestershire - say drinking is rife. But they believe they have a responsible attitude towards alcohol which they didn't have at 12. "If you get drunk and stupid now everyone laughs at you," says Zoe. "But when you do it when you're younger, everyone thinks you're hard."

How does it affect their school work? The girls insist hangovers are no problem because they restrict their drinking to weekends. But according to the Alcohol Counselling and Information Service in Gloucester, increasing numbers of young people are suffering hangovers at school.

Janet Gunn, the service's development officer, says: "We are identifying more pupils who are not necessarily drinking at school but are suffering from the morning-after-the-night-before syndrome. And whereas it used to be Friday nights that youngsters were going out, they're increasingly going out on a Thursday night as well."

She says schools are starting to respond. Gloucestershire education authority is funding a booklet aimed at 14-year-olds on the dangers of alcohol. "There's a lot of literature on drugs, but not much on alcohol. It's very much the poor cousin."

Nottingham-based Alcohol Problems Advisory Service (APAS) offers guidelines to teachers and heads on pupils' drinking. Director Nick Tegerdine estimates that one Nottinghamshire pupil a day is sent home with a hangover. He says schools prefer to send pupils home rather than face up to the problem.

"Schools have a vested interest in refusing to acknowledge the existence of such problems," he says. "It doesn't help when you have schools competing for pupils. They don't like to be labelled as a school where kids go and drink."

He says there are no statistics on drunkenness and hangovers at school, and believes that this, and schools' unwillingness to admit that pupils drink, mask the scale of the problem.

"It's a kind of institutional denial, which is what we would expect to find. Because that's what most large organisations do - bury their heads in the sand."

According to the latest figures, the proportion of 11 to 15-year-olds who never drink alcohol has remained around 40 per cent since 1988. But those who do drink are drinking more. Average alcohol consumption among 11 to 15-year-olds in England has more than doubled in the Nineties.

Some of the effects of this increase have been demonstrated graphically by Dr Joan Robson, consultant in paediatric accident and emergency medicine at the Royal Liverpool Children's Hospital. Between 1985 and 1996, she found a 10-fold surge in the number of children admitted with alcohol poisoning.

In 1996, she found that in one year, 215 children or adolescents under the influence of alcohol were brought in by friends, parents or police. They ranged in age from nine to 16, and all needed resuscitation or treatment for injuries caused by intoxication. One girl nearly died. She was admitted to casualty four times while the study was going on, and nine times the following year.

Most of these young people had drunk strong cider. Alcopops hardly featured at all, and were considered too expensive. A litre of strong cider, on the other hand, could be bought for pound;2 or less.

Accidental deaths, with alcohol as a root cause, have hit the headlines in the past 18 months and public school pupils have been the victims. At Malvern School, Worcestershire, Julian Edward, 17, was killed in a car crash at the school gate after a drinking spree in October 1997.

Jennifer Gelardi, a boarder at Millfield School, Somerset, died last June. The inquest heard that she fell from a dormitory roof after binging on vodka, gin, whisky and Cointreau cocktails on her 14th birthday.

The charity Alcohol Concern believes a national policy and framework for alcohol education in schools is desperately needed. Spokeswoman Caroline Bradley says: "The current government circular, Drug Prevention in Schools, concentrates almost exclusively on drug issues. There are 58 paragraphs on that, with five paragraphs on teaching children how to handle alcohol. This is despite the fact that alcohol is the drug they will come into contact with most easily and most often. And it's despite regular government expressions of concern about young people.

"Alcohol Concern wants to stress the deficiencies from a national point of view. There are no policies, there's no support, no framework. Alcohol education should be put on a par with drugs education in the curriculum," says Ms Bradley.

The Portman Group - set up 10 years ago with the backing of breweries and distillers to promote sensible drinking and increase understanding of alcohol misuse - disagrees with this view. Head of policy David Poley says:

"You have to treat alcohol differently from illegal drugs because it's a substance they will eventually be legally entitled to use.

"Rather than get them to think of it as something that's all bad, we want them to recognise that in moderation it's fun, when it's misused, it's dangerous."

At a talk organised this month by the Portman Group, broadcaster Janet Street-Porter called for secondary schools to set up bars serving low-alcohol drinks to teenagers, and for pubs to provide rooms serving low alcohol drinks to 16 and 17-year-olds. "If banning the sale of alcohol to under-18s hasn't worked, why not educate them instead?" she argued.

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