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Message in a bottle;Curriculum

A hands-on event for children brought home the stark realities of the dangers that lurk at the bottom of a glass, reports Innes Murchie

To take 700 first and second-year pupils to a cocktail bar might seem the height of criminal irresponsibility. Just a stone's throw from the bar, a sheriff court is in session, dealing with an offence brought about by under-age drinking. But on this occasion the bar is dishing out non-alcoholic cocktails while the bench is dispensing mock justice.

This slightly surreal scenario was part of a recent convention in Aberdeen's Bridge of Don suburb set up to tackle the problem of under-age drinking.

In June last year, community police officers organised a meeting of interested parties, including the community council, local health centre, school boards, Grampian Health Promotions, Aberdeen Football Club and local supermarkets, as well as staff from Bridge of Don and Oldmachar academies. The proposal was a convention to show young people the dangers of under-age drinking.

Senior pupils were given 10 months to organise the event. A committee of seven was drawn from the two academies and met regularly to put together Taboozing (Teenagers Against Boozing). Community police officers and other interested adults acted in an advisory role.

In consultation with a health education professional from the local health board, the committee targeted first and second-year secondary pupils as the most impressionable and most likely to start drinking under peer pressure. Any whiff of the temperance lecture had to be avoided. What was offered needed to be lively, practical and provoking enough to spark discussion. As well as bringing out the dangers of under-age drinking, the event also had to suggest alternatives to the doubtful pleasures of congregating behind the local shops to consume large quantities of cider, vodka and strong beers.

Local businesses and community groups were highly supportive, reflecting widespread concern not only about the youngsters themselves, but also about the effect of widespread under-age drinking on community image.

The council provided a great deal of funding, although little of it was needed as the venue, transport and most of the exhibition equipment were donated. Aberdeen Football Club gave free use of one of the exhibition areas in its new Richard Donald stand, and First Bus provided free transport to take pupils to the venue.

The two-day convention was split into morning and afternoon sessions, attended on a rota by all first and second-year pupils from the two academies - more than 700 children. During their half-day session, pupils were conducted around stands and activities covering three main areas - physical and health effects, social consequences and alternatives to drinking.

The tour took them to an interactive computer quiz on the effects of alcohol and the law on drinking. It also gave them an opportunity to fill a glass with what they judged to be a unit of alcohol (wildly over-estimated) and included a Red Cross training session on what to do when friends drank themselves into oblivion. A video from Grampian Police showed Saturday night alcohol-fuelled mayhem in the city centre and the aftermath in the casualty department.

These acitivities were interspersed with discussion groups, led by senior pupils, on issues such as peer pressure and health dangers. A real hit with the pupils was a mini-bar, staffed by a couple of young barmen from a local cafe, who mixed a range of non-alcoholic cocktails for pupils to taste.

The visit finished with a courtroom drama in which a young offender was hauled before the local sheriff to face a range of charges arising from offences committed under the influence. Although the message was serious, it was presented in a light-hearted manner, with senior pupils playing the parts of arresting policemen (comic helmet and truncheon), sheriff (erroneous but obligatory wig) and court officials (pompous). When the audience was invited to discuss the case in groups and present its verdict, the pupil jurors invariably delivered a resounding "guilty" in the best traditions of the "hang 'em, flog 'em" brigade.

The event's success was obvious. Back at school pupils wrote down their thoughts. Typical was the girl who wrote: "The Taboozing convention was pretty good - the non-alcoholic cocktails were delicious, especially the yellow one! The first aid training was quite good - it was a laugh when I had to pretend to be unconscious and Victoria had to put me in the recovery position. The mock court case was good too. All in all, the Taboozing convention was interesting and enjoyable."

What of the long-term effect? A one-off event such as this needs to be integrated into an ongoing programme of alcohol education. The two schools involved in "Taboozing" prepared their pupils in the weeks before in personal and social education. In addition to the immediate debriefing session that followed, the intention is to build further on the experience as the topic of teenage drinking is revisited.

Innes Murchie is principal teacher of guidance at Bridge of Don Academy, Aberdeen

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