Education: Too young to drink, but not to think: Junior school pupils who took part in a project on alcohol tell Sarah Strickland what they have learnt of its effects and dangers

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The Independent Online
Pupils at Summerfield Junior School in Birmingham have strong views on alcohol. They say people drink 'because they are sad', 'to calm them down', 'if they want to be like other people' or 'because they know it will make them feel good'.

These are the responses of children who took part last year in the development of an alcohol information pack, called 'We've Seen People Drinking', aimed at pupils aged eight to 11. The pack, which was tested in primary schools in Birmingham and Hereford & Worcester, has been developed in response to research by Edinburgh University's alcohol research group, and produced by the Portman Group, the National Primary Centre, the Birmingham Curriculum Support Service (BCSS), West Midlands Health Authority and Birmingham education department.

John Lloyd, of BCSS, says the research showed that young children had considerable knowledge and experience of alcohol. 'They are already trying it out, mainly at home, and some are having it on a regular basis. Whereas we would all agree that smoking is positively dangerous, alcohol is socially acceptable. The idea was to equip them with information to make choices, not forbid them to drink.'

Jan Walshaw, who managed the project at Summerfield school, was initially unsure about the relevance of alcohol education to her pupils, though she had already covered drugs and smoking. She soon changed her mind. 'It was revealing to see how much the children knew. They were excited by the subject and quite open about discussing it.'

The pack explains why people drink or choose not to, the effects and strengths of alcohol, how beer is made, the law, advertising and how to withstand pressure to drink. It promotes such activities as designing leaflets and ads for a non-alcoholic drink and examining texts from the Koran and the Bible.

Summerfield pupils talked enthusiastically about what they had learnt. They had strong moral views on the subject and were highly critical of people's reasons for drinking, suggesting that young people often did it to impress their friends. 'Somebody might say, 'If you don't, I'll bully you,' ' said one girl. 'They start calling you sissy and you have to try it,' said a boy. Adults, they felt, usually drank to cheer themselves up or to help them to forget. 'After they have had an argument with their wife they want to go out and get drunk,' said Palvi. Sheveen remembered one EastEnders episode: 'When Pauline kicked Arthur out of the house he went to the pub and got drunk,' she said. Did people ever drink for good reasons? After some thought they came up with 'to celebrate - an anniversary or if a baby is born'.

When asked about the effects of alcohol they chorused: 'It makes you drunk.' Then other possibilities were explored. 'It makes you relax and laugh and shout,' said one girl. 'You can't walk properly,' said Nathaniel. 'People start to act funny,' said Michelle, 'they start to bang their head on a wall or they might knock someone down and kill them or take it out on their children. It makes you sick, too.'

At least half the hands shot up when the pupils were asked if they had tried alcohol. Most had tried it at home but one had experimented with friends. How had it made them feel? 'I fell asleep on the floor,' said one. 'It made me feel funny,' said another. 'It makes you dizzy and burns your chest.' The Asian pupils' hands remained down. 'Some people don't drink because of their religion,' said one girl. Other reasons were illness, pregnancy or 'because of what people see in the news'. All of them felt strongly that no one should drink while pregnant, before driving or while at work.

During the project the issue of alcohol in the workplace came up among staff. Diane Worland, the headteacher, was keen at first to defend their freedom to enjoy the occasional drink - on a Friday afternoon, at Christmas or a leaving do. 'Now I have changed my perspective,' she said. 'We don't have a formal written policy but I think we agree - no alcohol during pupil contact time.'

Some will inevitably have parents who drink heavily. One pupil confessed: 'I have been afraid of my dad when he has had too much to drink.' Several headteachers involved in the project felt it provided an ideal opportunity to open up the subject and reassure children that 'problem drinking' by adults was not their fault.