Can six classroom lessons put teenagers off drinking?

New research suggests that minimal teaching about alcohol in schools can delay the age at which teenagers start drinking alcohol.

Helena Conibear of the Alcohol Education Trust addresses students (Photo: AET)

Helena Conibear of the Alcohol Education Trust addresses students (Photo: AET)

A major survey, conducted by The Alcohol Education Trust (AET), found that as few as six lessons over a two-year period could also reduce the risk of teenage alcohol abuse, including binge-drinking.

Alcohol education is not compulsory in UK schools. The topic is typically restricted to a one or two-lesson discussion of the physiological dangers of different types of drugs at key stage 3-4 (age 11-16).

A 2013 Ofsted survey found alcohol education in 40% of schools to be “inadequate”.

Between 2011 and 2015, a total of 4,500 schoolchildren from 34 schools were recruited for the study, which aimed to test the effectiveness of the AET’s ‘Talk About Alcohol’ programme.

The programme aims to provide an informal yet informative approach to issues around drinking, including class discussions and “fun activities”.

A total of 16 schools undertook the Talk About Alcohol programme, while 17 schools who didn’t were carefully matched according to such criteria as Ofsted ranking, the number of free school meals offered in the school and the ethnic mix.

The study’s key findings were that:

  • More than 40% of children surveyed had already had a whole drink, usually at home, by age 12 or 13
  • 36% of these children who were then taught on the AET programme, chose not to drink when aged 15-16, compared with 21% of children who were not

The study also revealed that teens were more likely to drink if they had more siblings, had a poor relationship with their father or if their parents drank.

The Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines to parents should wait until their child is at least 15 years of age before they are introduced to alcohol.

AET director Helen Conibear said that the Talk About Alcohol programme was effective where more heavy-handed tactics failed: “Children are fascinated by pictures of diseased livers being shown, or ex-addicts coming into schools with cautionary tales of what could happen to them, but think, ‘Well, that’s not me – I’d never let that happen’. Evidence from other research shows that such approaches are limited in impact.

“We’ve found that by relating to their world and getting kids to work things out for themselves through working in groups and through fun activities, we can delay the age they start drinking.

“Our approach is very much around letting them work out for themselves why it makes sense to wait until they’re older if they choose to drink.”

At the age of 12-13 more than 40% of children in all the schools surveyed had had a whole alcoholic drink, usually on a special occasion with family.

The number of children who did not take part in the programme who chose to take up drinking over the subsequent years rose to 79% in the schools who hadn’t had the programme, versus just 64% of teenagers who had had six lessons on alcohol two years earlier.

The AET currently works with around 1,000 schools across the UK.

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