Alcohol education in schools

Written by: Helena Conibear | Published:
Wider impact: Underage drinkers who consume alcohol regularly are also more likely to smoke and engage in other risky behaviours, such as drugs and unprotected sex (Image: Adobe Stock)

Children commonly have their first drink at around age 13, and while attitudes to drinking among young people are changing, it is still a major health concern. Helena Conibear looks at effective alcohol education and the support the Alcohol Education Trust can offer

Now well into 2018, the words “Dry January” will be a distant memory. Apparently, three million of us will have attempted to give up alcohol for the month after the excesses of the festive season.

Our role in equipping teenagers to stay safe around alcohol, however, is to lessen the social acceptability of drunkenness and the binge and purge culture to ensure that alcohol is part of the evening out, if or when they choose to drink, rather than the sole focus of it.

Indeed this seems to be happening. The Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People (England 2016) study (NHS Digital 2017), reveals a notable change in young people’s attitudes.

It involved around 12,000 students aged 11 to 15 and found that getting drunk was seen as less acceptable than drinking. While half of students agreed that it was okay to try alcohol to see what it is like (down from 67 per cent in 2003), 19 per cent said it was okay to try getting drunk to see what it was like (down from 31 per cent). Only seven per cent thought it was okay to get drunk once a week, down from 20 per cent in 2003.

However, the same study also warns us that 23 per cent of 15-year-olds report having been drunk in the last four weeks and the evidence we have seen at the Alcohol Education Trust (AET) is that those who are drinking are drinking more.

A particularly worrying trend is that more girls are now getting drunk (11 per cent of 11 to 15-year-old girls admitted to being drunk in the last four weeks compared to seven per cent of boys, according to the same NHS figures).

Furthermore, more girls are reporting to A&E with an alcohol-related admission than boys. Recent figures from Public Health England (PHE) show that the majority of admissions for under-18s are girls – 7,062 out of the 11,987 between 2014/15 and 2016/17.

Previous PHE research also shows that for girls, hospital admissions rise sharply from the age of 13 and seem to peak at age 15, whereas for boys they continue to rise throughout the teenage years (PHE 2016).

Alcohol’s impact on education?

Department for Education research (2010) shows an association between 14-year-olds drinking once or twice a week and lower scores at GCSE – a drop of around 20 points or three grades. Drinking on most days is associated with an 80-point drop.
The research makes clear that it is not alcohol consumption alone that leads to poorer scores, but that this is one factor among others, including socio-economic reasons, attitudes to education, and other risky behaviours (which could also be linked to alcohol). The research states: “It is likely that there may be a cycle of lower aspirations/poor attitude to education and alcohol consumption that ultimately leads to lower attainment.”

The paper also found that drinking was associated with other negative outcomes, such as the likelihood of being NEET and not remaining in full-time education beyond the age of 16.

It adds: “In the case of being NEET and leaving full-time education, this relationship was almost entirely explained by the link between drinking and other negative behaviours, particularly truancy and being suspended from school. These behaviours are more likely to be a consequence than an antecedent of drinking, and it therefore appears that drinking may be an important factor in levels of other risky behaviours which are associated with leaving full-time education.

“Reduction of alcohol consumption among young people may therefore help to reduce young people’s chances of becoming NEET indirectly through a reduction in their risk of participating in other risky behaviours.”

Research has also shown that underage drinkers who consume alcohol regularly are also more likely to smoke and engage in other risky behaviours, such as drugs and unprotected sex (DfE 2010 & PHE 2016).

The purpose of alcohol education

  • To increase young people’s knowledge, awareness and understanding of alcohol, its effects on the immature body and the social and physical risks associated with its misuse.
  • To raise awareness of the laws restricting the consumption of alcohol, and why these exist.
  • To promote dialogue about alcohol between teenagers and their parents and teachers.
  • To build young people’s resilience and life-skills, to understand personal responsibility, planning ahead and facilitating informed choices.
  • To raise the age of onset of drinking (first whole drink) to at least the chief medical officer’s guidance of age 15 in a supervised environment – research varies, but the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2011) has suggested that 12 to 13 is a common age for a young person’s first drink.
  • To increase the understanding of units, guidelines and responsible drinking.
  • To reduce the incidence of “binge drinking” and alcohol-related harm.

The role of PSHE

So, can PSHE lessons really make a difference to the choices that children make around drinking? Our work at the AET has given us evidence that they can. Our Talk about Alcohol lessons significantly delay the age that teenagers choose to drink. They also improve young people’s knowledge and engagement. Our evaluation shows that four 50-minute lessons during year 8 with a further two top-up lessons in year 9 can do the trick. More information on this evaluation is available on our website.

Non-specialist staff

The PSHE Association believes – and research shows – that health education is best delivered by a trusted member of staff in school who the children know, rather than an outside provider being “parachuted in”. We also know that life stories of former addicts are not effective.

The best approach is to have a PSHE lead who has taken the relevant CPD who can then confidently cascade their knowledge and learning to other tutors and members of staff.

This is important for fidelity and sustainability. At the AET, we have regionally based members of staff who host training sessions for a school or group of schools or PSHE leads – just 90 minutes is long enough to demonstrate the methodology. This is recommended to give staff delivering the programme confidence. However, the AET workbook and lessons are designed for the age, ability and experience of the children with detailed guidance for implementation, which means that this training is not essential.

When is the best age?

The trick is to catch children at what we call “the tipping point”, which is age 13. At age 11, just one per cent drink (NHS Digital, 2017), whereas by age 13 teenagers are looking to older peer groups.

So towards the end of year 8 and moving into year 9 is the ideal time for alcohol education. It is also essential to avoid scaremongering, highlighting extremes of behaviour or preaching.

When surveying pupils on alcohol education they say it is often boring, repetitive and doesn’t reflect the reality of their lives. The Talk about Alcohol programme therefore uses games, role play and activities that allow the children to work out for themselves what wiser choices might be and to realise some of the risks and choices they may face.

The teacher workbook – which you can download for free on our website – offers 30 lesson plans organised by topic and by year group and is fully supported online with films, worksheets and links to further resources.

More importantly there is a state-of-the-art free online learning zone for the children with games, quizzes and fun activities via the bespoke Talk About Alcohol education website, all carefully built around best practice.

Commenting on the website, the head of PSHE from the Dorchester Thomas Hardye School in Dorset, said: “Young people are engaged when a resource is fun, interactive and easily usable – this website ticks all of those boxes. What is more, it is realistic in its expectations of young people.

“At no point are they told to not drink alcohol, but always the message is that they should use it responsibly and keep themselves safe, therefore young people are able to take responsibility and ownership of their own safety and make informed decisions when it comes to alcohol. I would have no hesitation in recommending this website to any organisation or parent who is looking to educate their child on alcohol awareness – I fully intend on showing it to my own children.”

Those at higher risk of alcohol harms

There are four types of personality more prone to alcohol abuse and addiction (see graph, below):

  • Those who are sensation-seeking (risk-takers).
  • Those who are impulsive (often linked to ADHD who have a much higher risk of addiction).
  • Those who are more prone to anxiety/sensitivity.
  • Those with low self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness.

In addition, children with learning disabilities (affecting one in five children nationally) are at a three times higher risk of abuse and grooming, with looked after children having the poorest outcomes as regards the misuse of drugs or alcohol.

At risk: There are a number of groups who are at higher risk of alcohol harm and/or addiction (information supplied by the Alcohol Education Trust)

We have therefore developed a detailed suite of resources built around pictures and stories to ensure that the most vulnerable children are helped to stay safe around alcohol. To learn more or to see if your school is eligible for a free resource pack (value £90), do get in touch (see further information).

Preparing teenagers for transition

Alcohol education should not stop as children get older, but should move to a harm minimisation approach.
We need to prepare our older pupils for transition from leaving school, going to college and university and the challenges ahead. Such conversations look at understanding how consent can be compromised by alcohol, drink-spiking, how to reduce risk by looking out for each other, pacing drinks, eating and thinking about getting home safely for example.

This can be a better time for outside speakers to be involved in school via an extended assembly or tutorial. 

  • Helena Conibear is CEO of the Alcohol Education Trust.

Further information



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