Sensible drinks all round

16th February 1996 at 00:00
Michael Prestage visits the school that has just opened a bar to encourage self-restraint.

The new common room at Warminster School has a jukebox, a snooker table - and a bar where sixth-formers can buy wine or beer.

The Wiltshire school has followed a trend already well established at other independent schools in acquiring a licence to open a bar on Friday and Saturday evenings.

However, Warminster has become the focus of growing concern about young people and drink. It has attracted interest from media including German TV and Canadian radio.

Consumption of alcohol by under-age teenagers is at a worryingly high level. A study of Scottish 15 and 16-year-olds revealed that more than one in three of the boys and more than one in five of the girls had been very drunk in the past six months.

Similarly 13 per cent of 13 to 14-year-old boys in a Welsh study told researchers that they had been drunk four or more times in the past. The comparable figure for girls was 10 per cent.

A report by the Royal College of Physicians last November said: "Excessive consumption of alcohol damages the health and welfare of many children. It is also linked to aggressive behaviour, depression, poor performance at school and risky sexual behaviour."

Tim Holgate, who is the head of Warminster, said the moral issues raised by opening the bar had been discussed fully by staff. Parents have to give written permission for their children to drink alcohol - so far none has refused.

Mr Holgate believes the bar continues personal and social education work on sensible levels of alcohol consumption and fosters the idea of restrained drinking.

The bar is only open on Friday and Saturday nights. Pupils of 17 and over can be served alcohol (the bar qualifies as a private club) but the amount they can drink is restricted. There is always a member of staff on duty.

"I think it is being seen as a bold initiative. We are showing that our sixth-formers are responsible," he said. "Many of our students prefer soft drinks and it is important that they can see it is acceptable to drink soft drinks in a bar setting."

Sixth-formers Natalie Hicks-Lobbecke, aged 17, and Christopher Steer, 18, said the evening bar gave everyone the chance to get together and a glass of wine made it something special.

Christopher said: "It helps instil the idea of sensible drinking. We don't have the opportunity to drink vast amounts and some people might be tempted otherwise. It helps you to get used to a limit and shows you don't have to drink until you're drunk."

Garibaldi School in Mansfield has also been caught up in the debate about young people and alcohol. When the comprehensive offered vouchers for family meals in restaurants as form prizes, some newspapers accused it of issuing "tokens for buying booze".

Bob Salisbury, the headteacher, said: "This school takes the view that alcohol abuse and excessive drunken behaviour will be combated only if the problem is tackled in the context of the family and community," he said.

"Most schools have teaching programmes that strive to develop a responsible attitude to drugs and alcohol, but these become effective only if they are backed up by real-life experiences.

"The parents of youngsters in this school see the common sense of this philosophy and have overwhelmingly backed the introduction of the family food voucher scheme. They see it as an inventive way of promoting a family approach to eating out, of socialising and of growing up. The link to achievement at school is an added bonus."

Such school initiatives will find favour with the Portman Group, a drinks industry campaign against alcohol misuse, which last week urged parents to adopt a Continental approach - to give children watered-down wine with meals and let them have the occasional sip of beer or spirits.

Andrew Chevis, spokesman for the group, said: "There are those who will say it is appalling to teach youngsters to drink. But children will eventually find out about alcohol, so it's best they are educated about it properly."

He pointed out that although less alcohol per person is consumed in Britain than anywhere else in Europe, this country has more drink-related problems. "The culture in Europe is different. Children taste alcohol at an early age and have watered-down wine with meals. When they are adults they drink socially and sensibly.

"In Britain we shield children from alcohol. Then when they are old enough, they go out every Friday and Saturday night, get smashed and start fights. We believe it is better to discuss drinking with children - let them see that you have a drink, and also see the effects."

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