Sobering thoughts on heavy drinking;Talkback

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
Warning: end of term parties can lead to hospital admissions, writes John Haden.

On the night of the sixth-form formal dinner, or rather in the early hours of the following morning, my wife and I were in the local version of Casualty, with two very drunk teenagers. The girl was comatose. The boy woke up every half hour to announce, loudly, "I'm sorry, Mr Haden, I'm sorry," before passing out again. Such are the joys of being in loco parentis, and of taking our responsibilities seriously.

We took our two very miserable students back to the college medical centre later that day, both with splitting headaches and the need to explain to their parents why they were being sent home for a week with a final warning.

With about 300 other sixth-form students and staff, our two casualties had enjoyed a Christmas celebration evening in the last week of the term. The event is usually civilised and enjoyable for all, and has been held without major difficulty for many years.

At the request of the organising committee, I have always allowed a glass of bucks fizz to be served before the meal and a glass of wine with it. But last Christmas, heavy drinking by the young turned what has always been a pleasant evening into a nightmare for the staff and a salutary lesson for many of the students.

In spite of warnings beforehand, and vigilance by the staff, several of the day students were already drunk by the time dinner started. The boys had spent the early evening at the local pub. Most of them were well under 18. Several of the girls had been supplied with bottles of wine by their parents, while changing at a friend's home. They were noisy, and one was sick. Though disgusting, this was not actually dangerous.

The boarders had more difficulty getting hold of alcohol. A handful persuaded friends to smuggle bottles of vodka or rum into the boarding house and then drank as much as quickly as they could after the meal. The most badly affected girl was found unconscious, jammed into a toilet cubicle. The boy had crept into bed and nearly choked when he was sick before passing out. Both were found by other students who had the good sense to get staff help and an ambulance.

Acute alcohol poisoning is all too common among young people, sometimes leading to deaths. Sadly, we live in a culture where heavy drinking by young people, often under the legal age limit, is accepted and even celebrated by the clubbing and "costa del alcohol" scene.

Many boarding schools try to meet the demand for access to alcohol by having a bar where sixth-form students can learn to drink sensibly. I have always resisted appeals for such a bar at Wymondham.

At a recent conference for boarding school headteachers, Dr John Rae, formerly of Westminster School, pointed out the implications of the "no more than two pints a night" rule common in such school bars. Two pints of strong lager, with twice the alcohol content of bitter, is equivalent to about eight whiskies.

Schools, particularly boarding schools, accept responsibility for young people and, quite rightly, can be held to account. Alcohol-free schools make good sense, and are much easier to run. There will be occasional disasters, such as our Christmas event last year, which forced us to review all our arrangements and made it clear that we will breathalyse those suspected of being drunk. Every year, I tell our students that I have once had to go to the funeral of a 16-year-old who did choked on his own vomit.

We have a very thorough programme of alcohol education through the curriculum. Yet the desire by the young to get "smashed" continues. As a national community, we are greatly troubled by the issue of drugs and young people. We need to be even more concerned about the widespread misuse of alcohol, and enforce the laws which control, in theory, its availability to the young.

John Haden is principal of Wymondham College, Norfolk, the UK's largest state boarding school.

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