Drinking moderation

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Sober debate is needed to inform young people of the dangers of alcohol, says David James.

Booze is in the news. Barely a day goes by without somebody speaking out against the new legislation to extend opening hours in England and Wales.

The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, who is responsible for the new laws, would like to see our young people behave like, well, Europeans: in the not-too-distant future (she hopes) they will be sitting around tables, chatting amiably, gradually replacing their 15 pints of lager and a kebab with one or two glasses of pinot noir and a little tapas. Anybody with any experience of "chucking out time" will tell you that such a metamorphosis simply isn't going to happen.

One of the reasons why it won't happen is that we do not educate our young people to drink sensibly. Sure, in personal health and social education lessons pupils are shown video nasties of the after- effects of bingeing on alcopops, but such things, like the dangers of unprotected sex, rarely act as real disincentives to our young.

Unfortunately, drinking alcohol is a mark of adulthood in this country, and there is a concomitant laddish attitude which seems to be ubiquitous in today's society (even the Government joined in at the last election when they sent text messages to young people saying: "Cldnt give a XXXX 4 last ordrs? Thn vte Lbr on thrsday 4 xtra time").

I believe that we should introduce our young people to sensible drinking before they are 18. Public schools in this country have tried to do just this for many years. It is the norm for such institutions to have a social centre where 16, 17 and 18-year-olds can drink, under the supervision of teachers, some wine or beer on certain nights. They have an allowance, and their parents are quite happy about this arrangement.

In boarding schools such as mine pupils may, on occasion, be entertained in the separate houses: housemasters and housemistresses, who take their duty of care very seriously, will occasionally invite pupils into their homes for a meal. It is entirely normal for some wine to be served on such occasions. Similarly, the parents and pupils who attend concerts, poetry readings and plays are allowed (again under supervision) to have some alcohol in moderation. It is rarely abused. However, as of next Monday all this will change.

On that day, the transitional phase of the Licensing Act (2003) will come to an end and it will be a criminal offence to supply alcohol to somebody under 18 on school property. It appears, furthermore, that this covers every scenario except in (strictly defined) private accommodation. A boarding house, which is effectively home to many pupils for many weeks of the year, does not, according to the Government, qualify as anything other than school property; moreover, the HM's own accommodation is classified as school property. Needless to say, all the social clubs will be closed down.

Few would argue that this country has a problem with alcohol: it is believed that alcohol-related deaths number around 22,000 per year, and we are drinking more each year. Of course, it is first down to parents to educate their children about the dangers - and pleasures - of drinking, but we have to be realistic and admit that in many cases this does not happen, and that other adults - including teachers - have a role to play. What many in the independent sector argue is that it is better for our young people to be supplied alcohol in moderation, and under supervision, than to enforce a fiction which claims that by denying them this opportunity they will not drink: they will, and they will often resort to doing it in secret in a manner which could well endanger their health.

The Government is confused about booze: the bill seeks to criminalise blameless behaviour and yet another piece of proposed legislation, opposed by so many, is likely to go through with potentially disastrous consequences.

If we are going to be more European, we need to have a sober debate about how to educate our young about drink. Unfortunately, this Government still seems too drunk on the success of three election victories to consider it necessary to consult and listen to those who might oppose their actions for reasons which are sincere and founded on experience. The hangover will be a long one for us all.

Dr David James is head of English at Haileybury school, Hertfordshire

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