'We have seen a noticeable shift in students’ attitudes to alcohol,' says Waterford City teacher

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'We have seen a noticeable shift in students’ attitudes to alcohol,' says Waterford City teacher

Over 13,000 students, including pupils from five secondary schools across County Waterford, have to date participated in Drinkaware’s Junior Cycle Alcohol Education Programme (JC AEP), which was the subject of the three-year longitudinal study carried out by Maynooth University.

This significant study, for the first time, tracks first to third year students’ experiences of alcohol education in Ireland in real time.

As the national charity working to reduce and prevent alcohol misuse in Ireland, Drinkaware commissioned Maynooth University’s Centre for Mental Health and Community Research to investigate the programme’s effectiveness in particular its primary prevention goal to delay the age of first drink. 

The programme involves eight to 10 lessons delivered on a weekly/fortnightly basis by the trained teacher and to date 134 schools have undertaken the programme including Waterford City's Newtown School, De La Salle College and Ursuline College, and St Augustines College and Ard Scoil na Deise in Dungarvan. 

350-plus students from 19 schools across the country took part in the evaluation that was conducted over the three-year period (2018 – 2020).

Mary Kelleher, teacher at Newtown School in Waterford City, said of the programme: “We have seen a noticeable shift in students’ attitudes to alcohol, especially when it comes to understanding the range of harm that drinking can cause.

"Students are impressionable at this age, and peer pressure is a reality. Programmes like Drinkaware’s JC AEP play a huge role in helping teachers engage with young people to give them the information, and the personal and social skills they need to make better decisions long-term.

“Teachers are a major touchpoint in teenagers’ lives, but we are only one. It is important that alcohol education comes from all angles – from the home, from peers, and from the wider community.”

Increase in intent not to drink and improved understanding of impact of alcohol consumption on health

The report found that as the students progressed through the JC AEP, the proportion who expressed no intention or interest in drinking, rose from 30% in first year to 54% in third year. 

The findings also show that participation led to substantial and sustained improvements in students’ knowledge and understanding of alcohol when compared with pre-programme delivery data. 

Students’ knowledge of the impact of alcohol on overall health and wellbeing increased substantially and progressively from 22% pre-programme to 50% in third year. 

A similar increase was found regarding students who reported ‘knowing a lot’ about alcohol’s impact on mental health which also doubled from 23% pre-programme to 46% in third year. 

Furthermore, nearly half (46%) of participating students identified the negative impact of alcohol on physical and mental health as a reason why teenagers do not drink.

Tipping point for underage drinking is second to third year

As the study followed participating students through their three formative years of secondary school, there was a marked shift across some of the results when comparing second and third year data.  For instance, the 60% (approximately) of students who indicated that they had never drunk alcohol remained fairly stable between first and second year, but then decreased sharply by 17% as students went from second to third year.

A disturbing result revealed in the study was that 38% of third year participating students who drink, have already experienced one or more negative effects of alcohol consumption, such as physical fights, arguments, accidents/injury, and/or feeling physically sick/vomiting.

Home setting can facilitate or deter underage drinking

A recurring theme identified within the report, was that of parents’ role in underage drinking.  Parental permissiveness – even if this is only perceived by the student – and the ease with which alcohol can be accessed in the home setting, may either inhibit or enable underage drinking. For instance, 57% of third year students had first consumed alcohol either in their own or someone else’s home, most saying they did so with little difficulty whilst only one in four said they got into trouble with parents for drinking.

In contrast to the 44% in third year who cited tolerant parental views regarding alcohol, 19% indicated that their parents do not like to see them drinking, and 17% of those in third year who had not started drinking cited concerns over their parents’ reaction as a deterrent to drinking. 

The findings on the views of teachers, reflected a general consensus that parents/guardians should take primary responsibility for alcohol education (63%) and that they either were not fulfilling this role or needed support to do so.

With regard to the participating students and teachers’ views of the JC AEP, the study reveals consistently high proportions of students in each year of the evaluation, rated the JC AEP highly, for example 63% of students in Year 3 rated it as ‘excellent’, ‘very good’ or ‘good’.  60% also said that they would recommend the programme to other students/schools.