Evidence is key to educating the Neknomi-nation

By Sarah Lynch

Alastair Campbell, best known for his work as former Director of Communications and Strategy for Tony Blair, recently commented in the Times Educational Supplement that, as someone who struggled with alcohol dependency himself, he has concerns that education on problem drinking is being sidelined in schools. 

If this is true, it is indeed worrying, as the average age of drinking a first whole alcoholic drink in the UK is between ages 13 and 14, and by 15 many young people are drinking regularly. Also alarming is the alcohol-related phenomenon that’s been widely reported recently called Neknomination – which has seen young people respond to drinking dares by filming themselves downing dangerous alcoholic concoctions. This new craze has led to deaths in the UK and elsewhere.

The TES piece suggested that media interest in binge drinking tends to focus on young people at least 18 years old, while Campbell is calling for the message to get into schools. I am in agreement with that, as NFER’s recent survey for the Alcohol Education Trust found that getting drunk and binge drinking is not always a behaviour saved for adulthood. Five per cent of 4410 pupils aged 12-13 reported having been drunk more than once, which increased to 11 per cent of 3919 pupils by the time they were aged 13-14. 

These findings highlight the importance of education about the risks associated with drinking per se – and binge drinking – at school age. In a previous blog I referred to gaps identified by Ofsted (in their review of personal, social and health education (PSHE) in students’ understanding of the physical and social damage associated with alcohol misuse, including personal safety. I also raised the issue of PSHE being tightly squeezed and non-statutory. Some schools give PSHE high priority and teach it very well, while in others it is taught by non-specialists who often lack confidence and expertise.  Regardless, alcohol education will often be one topic among many shoehorned into a tightly packed PSHE curriculum, so it is vital that teachers have a decent supply of evidence-based materials and interventions, so they can be confident that this precious time is used to the best, and proven, effect for students.  

With that in mind, it is disappointing to note that NFER’s recent review of school-based life-skills and alcohol education programmes found that evidence of the effectiveness of interventions to reduce episodes of drunkenness among school aged-children was limited and the findings were sparse and mixed. One exception was the European Drug Addiction Prevention (EU-dap) trial of the Unplugged programme, which found a positive impact on episodes of drunkenness.  Our more recent evaluation of the Alcohol Education Trust’s Talk About Alcohol materials (referred to above), the design of which was informed by the Unplugged programme, provides evidence of impact on students’ knowledge of alcohol which translated into a delay in the onset of drinking amongst young people aged 12-14.

I’m hoping we will get the opportunity to repeat this survey among older pupils, to explore the impact on frequency of drinking and episodes of binge drinking, when these behaviours are even more prevalent and impact is more likely to be detected. Watch this space…