If pupils fall over they go home...

1st June 2006 at 01:00

Alcohol abuse is hard to tackle in a hard-drinking country, but two schools have some tips. Susannah Kirkman reports

Many schools are now as worried about their pupils abusing alcohol as they are of them taking drugs. Binge-drinking among UK teenagers almost tops the European league, and children as young as 11 are suffering from liver cirrhosis.

The latest research shows that children who begin drinking regularly by the age of 13 face a 47 per cent risk of becoming an alcoholic. Independent school heads are more worried about alcohol than drug abuse.

Yet schools are finding it hard to change a culturally engrained attitude to drink.

"If you look at Hogarth's Gin Lane and the drinking habits of Nelson's navy, you can see that England has always had a reputation for immoderate drinking," says Bill Burn, second master at Sherborne, a boys' public school.

"It is hard to challenge irresponsible drinking because alcohol is so socially acceptable," says Annette Croft, head of the Heart of England, a specialist school for business and enterprise in Coventry. "Young people believe they can't have a good time unless they're tanked up."

Could the emphasis on children's well-being, enshrined in the Children Act and coupled with a new inspection framework, force heads to change?

Martin Rogers of the Children's Services Network thinks that schools will get extra credit from inspectors if they offer evidence of imaginative projects. But he believes it is unlikely that the new inspections, which will include a social care remit, will penalise schools not involved in preventative work.

There is no evidence that alcohol education will have any great impact, according to Professor Lawrence Moore of the Cardiff Institute of Society, Health and Ethics.

"Systematic reviews of alcohol interventions have found little that works.

The message is very complicated. You can say `Don't smoke' but you can't say, `Don't drink at all'.

"Schools have to be realistic," warns Andrew McNeill, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies. "There is a constant wish to shift responsibility for all social problems on to teachers. The Government is sending out conflicting messages - we now have universal opening hours but let's stop binge drinking."

Dr McNeill believes that schools should develop their strategies with parents, including clear guidelines on support and dealing with inebriated pupils.

But parents can be one of the problems. A Welsh study, `From lollipops to alcopops', says alcopops are often given to children by parents at family parties and barbecues.

Anthony McClellan, who runs an advisory service for schools on alcohol, drugs and emotional problems, says: "If you are giving a talk on hard drugs, you can fill a lecture hall. If it's about alcohol, it might be half full if it's not raining. Parents don't see it as a problem because it's part of our culture."

"Not all parents are as supportive as you might expect," says Mrs Croft.

"Social drinking is very much part of life."

But at the Heart of England, cited as an example of good practice by Alcohol Concern, parents, teachers, governors and pupils have helped to devise the school's policy on alcohol, which Mrs Croft believes is firm but fair.

"If someone comes to school drunk, they are sent home. But we will then talk to the parents and make sure they know where to get help," she says.

"If we took a punitive line, no one would ever ask for support."

Sherborne also works closely with parents and the local community to enforce its alcohol policy, where housemasters breathalyse boys suspected of binge-drinking.

"We have clear sanctions, including gatings, detention and community service," says Mr Burn. Eighteen-year-olds are allowed out to the pub, but only for beer or wine.

"We take a sterner view of spirits and fortified wines because they are potentially life-threatening," says Mr Burn.

"If we have zero tolerance of alcohol, we find the boys never learn to drink sensibly and are tempted to drink spirits in secret."

Seventeen-year-old pupils have a school bar where they can drink beer or wine with a snack as part of a karaoke or themed evening.

Boys can be referred to the school's counsellors or nurses for help, and all pupils are taught about the effects of alcohol in biology, personal and social health education, and by visiting speakers who are reformed alcoholics.

Mr Burn also liaises with local publicans to check on boys' behaviour, although he says few actually cause problems.

At the Heart of England, Year 10 pupils teach Year 7, as well as Year 6 pupils at a feeder primary.

The younger pupils look up to the Year 10 pupils, although research in Welsh schools has shown that using peer education on alcohol is less likely to be successful than on drugs or smoking.

Mike Eden, of Alcohol Concern, says: "The key messages coming out are, `Don't tell us not to drink. Tell us how to do it safely'."

Alcohol Concern www.alcoholconcern.org.ukNational Alcohol Helpline, 0800 776600. Institute of Alcohol Studies, www.ias.org.uk

Battle with the bottle: schools say support for pupils who drink is more effective than sanctions

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