Education Viewpoint: Why we should teach our children how to drink

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WHY can't the British teach their children how to drink? Teenagers in most other European countries do not appear to regard getting drunk as one of the rites of passage to adulthood. Is there something in our attitude that encourages adolescents to treat alcohol as a forbidden fruit to be indulged in to excess?

I think there is, but first it is only fair to point out that in Britain youth's excesses are not carried over into adulthood. Britain is not even in the top 20 of alcohol-consuming countries and the vast majority of adults - 78 per cent of men and 93 per cent of women - drink less than the Government's recommended 'sensible drinking levels'.

Our problem is not that we drink too much but that we sometimes don't know how to handle it. Which is why a suggestion that we pay more tax on alcohol misses the point. It is the way we allow our children to encounter alcohol that we must change.

Our approach could hardly be more confused. The legal drinking age is five but many people believe it is 18. The law bans the sale of alcohol to those under 18 but the young find it such an easy law to circumvent, they must assume that adults are not particularly concerned.

Alcohol education in schools varies from the thorough to the non-existent. The Department of Education and Science is responsible for alcohol education in schools but the Department of Health has overall responsibility for alcohol education. The two departments do not appear to liaise on the subject.

The most dangerous confusion arises from ignorance. The head of an independent boarding school told me that he allowed 17- and 18-year-olds to drink in a school bar. He argued that it was better for them to learn to drink in a controlled environment. The bar was open five nights a week and the limit per night was two pints of beer or cider. Spirits were forbidden.

But if the beer or cider was 8 or 9 per cent 'alcohol by volume', the two pints contained as much alcohol as eight pub measures of whisky, and the head was, therefore, allowing his senior pupils to drink the equivalent of 40 whiskies a week. That represented 40 units of alcohol, well above the sensible weekly level. The head just did not understand the implications of 'alcohol by volume'.

No wonder young Britons have a reputation for not knowing how to handle alcohol. We should educate our children about alcohol in a way that avoids this confusion but does not turn us into a heavy drinking country such as France.

There are some steps we could take straight away. One member of the Government responsible for all health education, in and out of school, would help. So would positive health promotion, including a policy on alcohol, in all schools. Is it desirable for teachers to drink during the working day, for example? When an independent school expels boys for stealing pounds 700 worth of alcohol from the staff room, one is bound to ask whether it should have been there in the first place.

The illegal sale of alcohol and widespread ignorance of alcohol strength could easily be dealt with if we had the will. Often police and magistrates know which pubs and off-licences sell to under-18s. Since 1989, 'alcohol by volume' has had to be shown on every bottle and can throughout the EC, yet the Government has made no attempt to educate the public about its implications.

Most young people in Britain grow up to be sensible in their use of alcohol but drunken rites of passage need not be part of that process. If we got rid of our confusion and inertia, we could have the one without the other.

The author, a former headmaster, is now director of the Portman Group, the drinks industry's initiative against alcohol misuse.