Primary pupils turning to drink

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Childhood is less innocent - and much shorter - than ever, according to new research which shows that drink and drugs affect even primary school playgrounds.

Childhood is less innocent - and much shorter - than ever, according to new research which shows that drink and drugs affect even primary school playgrounds.

Figures from a wide-ranging study by the Schools Health Education Unit show that the taste for alcohol develops early, with one in five 10-year-old boys - and one in seven girls of the same age - downing at least one drink in the previous week.

Beer and wine were the most common, but 3 per cent admitted that they had been drinking spirits. The research, which involved 36,856 young people, also found that one in five thought they knew someone using drugs.

"I believe that lessons about puberty and the dangers of hypodermic needles are just as important as English lessons," said Dr David Regis, the unit's research manager.

"Some people argue against doing any sort of health education in primary schools. They say, 'Let them have their innocence.' It is an ostrich-like position which I don't endorse. These charts should dispel the illusion that all is innocence at this age.

"A lot of the attitudes we are concerned about in secondary schools are formed in primary schools. Children have started thinking about smoking. They have started drinking. We ignore these things at our peril."

Dr Regis said that some primary schools had objected to a question introduced into this year's survey questionnaire about when girls started their periods.

But he said: "If school education about menstruation comes after it has taken place and if parents have not talked about it, then children may find it traumatic."

Most schools did not start teaching about puberty until towards the end of the last year in primary school. Yet the figures showed that some girls reached puberty at the age of nine or 10.

School days are also spoiled by neurosis and, increasingly, by downright fear, according to the study, which was conducted by researchers from the unit, based in Exeter.

By the age of 10 or 11, more than one-quarter of the girls said that their biggest worry was how they looked, and more than half of them had poor self-esteem.

The percentage of children questioned who had been scared or upset by the approach of an adult stranger has risen to 30 per cent from 25 per cent in 1997.

More than 60 per cent of young women want to lose weight. "It is certain," said Dr Regis, "that most of these young women do not need to lose weight."

He said schools could celebrate a reduction in the level of drug use among their pupils which, for the third year running, is below the levels it reached in the mid-1990s. But, at the same time, the number of young people who believe smoking cannabis is safe has risen steadily.

Mick Brookes, president of the National Association of Head Teachers and head of Sherwood Junior School in Nottinghamshire, said: "One of the sad features of our society is that children seem to be losing their childhood earlier and earlier.

"Sex education in my school has happened in year six [the final year] but we are now reviewing it to see whether we should start earlier.

"Some children are not innocent at 11, but some are. We tackle drugs education in year six and I think that is about right. There is a danger that if you introduce children to some of these things, you put ideas into their heads."