Tackling the traits of teen alcoholism


After taking part in a pilot project to tackle alcohol misuse using targeted interventions with students grouped by personality traits and individual tendencies, Corelli College saw a real impact. Jon Kelly explains how.

We learned some very important lessons early on with the Adventure Trial and its predecessor Preventure. The programme divided students with a high propensity for risk-taking behaviour into four key groups so that a tailor-made intervention, based on cognitive behaviour therapy, could be delivered to them. 

The programme’s aim was to reduce drinking behaviour by teaching students to better manage the personality traits and individual tendencies that put them at higher risk of problem drinking.

The accuracy of the groupings, based on the kids scaling a very short questionnaire, was uncanny. Keeping the impulsive and sensation seekers in the room was always a challenge and the anxiety sensitives had to be handled with care. 

However, we soon learned that you should never deliver the intervention to the negative thinkers first. 

We did this the first year and wondered why hardly any students turned up to the following groups. I collared one lad in the corridor and asked why: “I asked Mo what it was like sir and he said it was rubbish.”

When I was approached by the National Addiction Centre to take part in the new intervention, it was an opportunity too good to miss. My school is called Corelli College (it was Kidbrooke then) and is located in south east London in the Royal Borough of Greenwich. 

Our catchment area includes the post-industrial suburbs of Charlton, Woolwich and Plumstead and the residential experiment of Thamesmead. Our cohort of students has very high levels of need. We currently have the fourth highest number of Pupil Premium students in the country (at 83.8 per cent) with all the issues that this brings. 

Our borough, catchment and cohort face high levels of deprivation, parental mental health issues, domestic violence and parental substance misuse. We generally make three IRAS (Initial Response and Assessment Team) referrals a week and work closely with a range of agencies to keep our students safe at, and outside of, college.

Despite all this, the college is a happy and successful place. As London’s first Co-operative Academy and the country’s first purpose-built comprehensive, we hold the values of community education close to our heart. There is a vibrancy at Corelli – ask the chickens, bees or customers at our farmers’ markets. Join the audiences for productions from our Kidbrooke Theatre Company which won the accolade of best play at the Edinburgh Fringe and which regularly transfers plays to Greenwich Theatre and beyond. 

We meet the emotional needs of our students through a wide range of interventions, including Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), music therapy, counselling and the TeenTalk health centre. We tailor our PSHE curriculum to meet the needs of the students as they change with the trends outside, but Adventure offered something different.

The programme allowed us to screen as many students as we wanted to and we chose year 9 to maximise impact. After the 240 students filled in a short questionnaire which involved scaling 23 questions such as “I am very excited about my future” and “I like doing things that frighten me a little”, they were scored and we usually ended up with about a quarter identified for further intervention. 

Often staff would comment with surprise at some of the students included in the programme and this was a great strength. We were no longer waiting for a crisis to happen before we intervened but were identifying students with the potential to be risky. As a school, it allowed us to move away from the stereotype of loud, badly behaved, gangster-style risk-takers and self-harmers.

A further advantage was the training of our staff. I put three teachers and three mentors through the programme leading to six trained instructors. The best part of this training was the supervision provided by the National Addiction Centre which really moved us on in our practice. 

I always find that working closely with skilled professionals from other fields is the best way to change what you do for the better. The skills learned have proved transferable to other contexts as we all deal with the emotional needs of our students.

Parents have been very supportive with only one complaint and refusal in six years. This refusal led to an interesting debate about some “government-sponsored pseudo-psychological programme”. We had many interested and some worried enquiries from parents but learned early on that more information was better. 

The question around confidentiality with substance misuse is a crucial one. Our line is that parents have a right to know if their child is misusing substances and that their involvement is vital if young people are going to avoid or come out of problem substance misuse. 

Adventure gave us a way to start the conversation with them so helping us to identify many youngsters at significant risk of harm and allowing those youngsters a forum to begin to tell, and get the support they needed. 

From each cohort, six to 10 students went on to have interventions, from other agencies such as the local Drug and Alcohol Action Team (DAAT), CAMHS and social services, which they may not have otherwise accessed. 

Another success of Adventure at Corelli is the way it became embedded into the rest of our programmes and was informed by them as well as informing them. Key themes that came out of our Adventure, such as a rise in unprotected sex among the girls and a shift from eating disorders to cutting, informed the PSHE curriculum and gave me the evidence to continue funding our health centre after the local authority pulled out. I would say this element is crucial.

Well-meaning schemes designed to resolve the problems of modern youth ping into my in tray on a daily basis. What made Adventure different was the investment in our staff by the National Addiction Centre to move on our skills and practice. What made it work for us was the way it became part of what we do and not just another add on.

Having said all that, nothing is perfect. The programme was developed in Canada and the relation between the characters in the resource books and our London kids did sometimes feel a bit tenuous. It would be terrific if it were possible to produce UK-focused resources to be used alongside the roll-out of the programme here. We did adapt the programme to the different groups. Delivering to the learning styles of the different categories was crucial with the sensation seekers performing well using role play and the negative thinkers preferring a quieter more conversation-based approach.

This is the first year we have not run the programme. Staff turnover has left me with no-one to run it who will do it justice and my efforts are focusing on the development of a significant mental health provision for the school as well as the development of a real voice for those with disabilities.

My fear is though – at a time when the ramping up of pressure on our families through the recession and associated cuts in other services is already showing in rises in child protection issues, parental mental health problems and an increasing cohort of persistent absentees – that this is not a good idea.

Hopelessness and helplessness breeds self-contempt. It puts children in a situation where risks seem less worrying and self less worth protecting. Adventure is one of our key tools in combating the resultant lack of self-care and it will be back next year.

It is always difficult to unpick what effect schemes like Adventure have on whole-school performance. I am able to identify the dozens of individual pupils who say it made a difference to them. You can look at the data yourselves and see that increases in binge-drinking were significantly lower over the first couple of years among the cohort who took part than among their peers. I can also point to safer sexual practices and reductions in truancy among them.

I cannot claim that Adventure caused the more than doubling of the school’s exam outcomes or the rise in attendance from significantly below to on national averages during its first three years, but my mind, my heart and most significantly, my gut, know it played its part. Oh yeah – even Ofsted may take an interest.

  • Jon Kelly is assistant head inclusion at Corelli College in south east London.

Further information
The Adventure Trial was led by Dr Patricia Conrod, of King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, in collaboration with the University of Montreal and Sainte-Justine University Hospital Center in Canada. The trial was commissioned by Action on Addiction (www.actiononaddiction.org.uk), a charity working across the addiction field in research, prevention, treatment and rehabilitation, professional workforce development, professional education and support for families and children. Corelli College has been involved in the Adventure Trial, and its predecessor Preventure, since October 2006.


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