A sobering approach: Schools are getting real by teaching sensible drinking – and how to give up smoking

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The Independent Online

Alex Vero began to drink heavily in his gap year. By the time he reached university he was, in his words, "an overweight, 16-stone, drunken slob". He took up smoking, even though he was asthmatic. "I would wake up in the morning and could hardly breathe," he says. "I felt like my life was slipping away."

Ten years on and three stone lighter, the former Wellington College pupil is an international marathon runner and an award-winning film-maker. His documentary Running to the Limits, charting his struggle to kick drink and tobacco, was released on DVD this week and shown on Channel 4 last month.

Next term, he will be back at Wellington in Berkshire, showing his film and talking to sixth-formers about the health risks of smoking and drinking to excess. Young people, he says, find a video particularly engaging and they also value hearing his story, especially as he was not a natural athlete at school, finishing last in his first cross-country race. "We can't all be the best. But we are capable of so much more than we think."

Alex has been invited back as part of Wellington's wellbeing programme, the terminology preferred by Dr Anthony Seldon, the headmaster, to the more widely used PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) education.

"We take a distinctive, positive approach in promoting wellbeing and happiness," he says. "If you tell someone not to do something, they immediately want to do it. So instead of preaching 'Don't do drink', we say: 'Look after your body, mind, liver and lungs if you want to enjoy life to the full'. We find that's much more effective."

Like other fee-paying schools, Wellington has strict rules prohibiting smoking and drinking on site, with penalties for transgressors. But that does not mean alcohol is banned completely.

Dr Seldon and his wife host weekly candlelit dinners for sixth-formers and take pride in serving "the best claret and white burgundy".

Brighton College (where he was previously headmaster) also runs "dine with wine" evenings for sixth-formers, though the current head, Richard Cairns (who claims his dinners predate those at Wellington College) prefers New Zealand to French. "It's a good way of saying: 'Welcome to a new world'," he says. "The students feel they are being treated as adults." Alcoholic intake is limited, though, to two glasses.

Teaching older pupils to drink responsibly is the rationale behind the introduction of a wine club at Malvern St James school in Worcestershire. Recently, girls attending a cordon bleu cookery course there heard from Richard Bampfield, chairman of the Association of Wine Educators. "What I try to get over is that wine should be part of an enjoyable meal and lifestyle, not just something to be knocked back in order to get drunk," he says.

So what do other heads think of such schemes? Alcohol abuse is one of the most serious issues facing society today, says Rod MacKinnon, the headmaster of Bristol Grammar School, where education about responsible drinking starts in Year 8, with speakers from Alcoholics Anonymous. "It's important to have a very clear and upfront message about alcohol, and to reinforce it," he says.

Bristol Grammar's message is clear: drink and schools don't mix. Sixth-formers are not allowed to consume alcohol at social events or on school trips. It is permitted only at the leavers' dinner, when technically they are no longer on the school roll.

His concern about the health damage being done by alcohol is echoed by Dr Martin Stephen, the high master of St Paul's School. Alcohol abuse is as big a problem as drugs, says Stephen, largely because of what he terms Britain's culture of drunkenness. He favours giving young people a safe, confidential environment to talk to a school counsellor, without losing street cred, and says irresponsible drinking in 2010, in his view, is as big an issue as smoking was in 1970.

Teenage smoking may have fallen sharply, but the problem has not gone away. Teachers say warnings about the long-term health dangers of cigarettes seem to have little resonance with youngsters. Reminders about the short-term effects, such as bad breath, have far more impact. Some youngsters still get hooked, though, and giving up isn't easy, particularly for those at boarding school.

Bedales School in Hampshire is about to launch smoking cessation clinics in response to pupil demand. "We had a whole school symposium last November on attitudes to alcohol," says Becks Hobson, director of student welfare. "Ironically, one of the main things pupils asked for help with was giving up smoking."

Sessions will start after Easter, run by one of the boarding house staff following specialist training from Quit4Life, Hampshire's NHS stop-smoking service.

"We don't know how many will attend," she says. "But even if we just get two or three pupils, it's worthwhile investing time and energy getting this initiative off the ground."