Alcohol: Let’s talk about it


PSHE has been branded not good enough at informing young people about alcohol, but there are proven ways to put that right. Anneka Dawson explains.


Teachers charged with delivering PSHE are responsible for covering some of the biggest issues young people may face but with the smallest of opportunities within a tightly scheduled timetable. They can also be some of the first in the firing line when young people’s vices hit the headlines – the most widely reported of which recently has been drinking.

The 2013 Ofsted review of PSHE said that it was “not yet good enough” and that there are gaps in understanding of the physical and social damage associated with alcohol misuse, including personal safety.

With 43 per cent of 11 to 15-year-olds having drunk an alcoholic drink at least once (Fuller, 2013), these gaps in knowledge could be affecting a large proportion of young people, potentially leading to alcohol misuse which has an impact not only on those young people themselves, but also on wider society.

In England, Health and Social Care Information Centre statistics (2012) highlight the concerning monetary, personal and societal costs of alcohol misuse, including the estimate that in 2008, the cost of alcohol-related harm to the NHS in England was £2.7 billion.

Plugging the knowledge gap

The National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) recently conducted an independent evaluation of the Alcohol Education Trust’s Talk About Alcohol intervention, which showed a significant impact on preventing early drinking among young teenagers.

The intervention takes a “harm minimisation approach” and gives teachers free tools to encourage students to make informed decisions, and tactics to help them manage difficult situations involving alcohol. 

The evaluation investigated change over time in alcohol-related outcomes for the two groups of students (those receiving the intervention and a matched group of comparison students who only had their normal PSHE lessons) by carrying out a self-report questionnaire survey of students at three time points across the school years 2011/12 and 2012/13.

At the first survey when students were in year 8, they were not big drinkers (4/10 had ever an alcoholic drink) and those who did drink most often only did so because it was a special occasion (9/10). The students also had some gaps in their knowledge about alcohol and its effects.

Less than a 10th of students drank more than once a month (classed as frequent drinking in this study and others) and relatively small proportions of students who drank reported negative consequences of drinking alcohol (for example, six per cent had got into a fight, seven per cent had done something they regretted). Around a 10th had ever been drunk or experienced binge-drinking.

When you look at the change over time the most important findings were that:

  • Significantly fewer students who had received the intervention had ever had an alcoholic drink by the end of year 9 compared to students who had not received the intervention (49 compared with 63 per cent). This suggests that the intervention is having an impact on delaying the onset of drinking for this age group.

  • Students who had received the intervention scored significantly higher on questions assessing their knowledge about alcohol and its effects than the comparison students. 

Both groups had scored higher overall in the last survey on the knowledge questions than at the first survey. However, there was no significant difference at this stage on frequency of drinking or binge-drinking between the intervention group and comparison group (although levels of frequency were lower among intervention schools, there was no evidence of a statistically significant difference). 

These are arguably longer term impacts that may be achieved when students are older and more likely to drink alcohol more frequently, as levels of frequent and binge-drinking at this stage were low (even though they had increased over time).

So our research suggests that the intervention can make a real difference to students’ knowledge and, most importantly, the age they start to drink – making it a potentially valuable tool for PSHE.

A model example

Some key messages emerged from the evidence about what made this particular intervention so effective, as well as some wider messages for schools. These include the following:

A flexible approach: Teachers reported that lessons were straightforward, flexible, and manageable to deliver, and that using them had saved time as they did not have to identify and pull together resources from a number of sources.

Filling gaps identified by Ofsted: Given the evidence of increased knowledge of alcohol and its effects in the intervention group, Talk About Alcohol is a useful resource in helping to fill the gaps in knowledge identified in Ofsted’s report.

The importance of PSHE to students: Students from the intervention group were more likely to report having received helpful information about alcohol from PSHE lessons, in which the intervention was most likely to be taught. Intervention students also preferred to receive information about alcohol from PSHE lessons. Although PSHE is a non-compulsory subject, these findings clearly emphasise its value and importance to young people. This intervention, delivered in PSHE lessons, has been shown to significantly add value and deliver behaviour change in the delay and onset of drinking.

Academies must keep PSHE a priority: Students in academies had lower alcohol knowledge scores. This could suggest that academies are giving alcohol education lower priority as they have more curriculum freedom. Although academies have curriculum freedom, it is important for them to fulfil their legal requirement to teach a balanced and broad curriculum, which promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental, and physical development of students, and prepares them for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life. The influence of the headteacher and senior leadership team and the value that is placed on PSHE is likely to be crucial in all schools.

Engage parents: Evidence indicates that parents are an important part of the intervention. Findings show that students are more likely to drink alcohol if their parents let them drink, or if parents drink alcohol in the home. Students also value information from parents. Thus, informing and supporting parents could be preventative. Sessions for parents form part of the intervention, and schools should consider the important issue of how to engage parents and work with parents on alcohol education.

Work in partnership with other schools: School leaders should consider the benefits of working in partnership with other schools in their locality, in sharing expertise and resources in addressing alcohol education.


With a relatively small number of lessons, this intervention can provide an impact to delay students’ onset of drinking and to increase their knowledge about alcohol and its effects.

Although further research needs to be carried out to test the longer term effects of this programme and the wider generalisability of the findings, our study also highlights that the materials can help to fill a gap identified by Ofsted in young people’s understanding of the damages associated with alcohol, and that school leaders, teachers and parents can successfully work in partnership to help to address this gap both through the school curriculum and at home.SecEd

  • Anneka Dawson is a researcher with NFER.

Further information
  • Fuller, E. (Ed). (2013). Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England in 2012. Health and Social Care Information Centre:
  • Health and Social Care Information Centre (2012). Statistics on Alcohol: England, 2012:
  • Not Yet Good Enough: PSHE education in schools, Ofsted (May, 2013):


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