Secondary school students in Portlaoise and Clonasee are among 13,000 pupils around Ireland who are participating in Drinkaware’s Junior Cycle Alcohol Education Programme (JC AEP).
The programme involves 8-10 lessons delivered on a weekly/fortnightly basis by the trained teacher and to date, 134 schools have undertaken the programme including St Mary’s CBS, Portlaoise, and Clonaslee college.
The students will also be taking part in a university study on alcohol education & behaviours. It tracks 1st to 3rd 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 and, in particular, its primary prevention goal to delay the age of first drink.
350+ students from 19 schools across the country took part in the evaluation that was conducted over the three-year period (2018 – 2020).
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 1st year to 54% in 3rd 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 3rd 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 3rd year. 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.
There was a marked shift across some of the results when comparing 2nd and 3rd year data. For instance, the 60% (approx.) of students who indicated that they had never drunk alcohol remained fairly stable between 1st and 2nd year, but then decreased sharply by 17% as students went from 2nd to 3rd year.
The study revealed that 38% of 3rd 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.
A recurring theme 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 3rd 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 1 in 4 said they got into trouble with parents for drinking.
In contrast to the 44% in 3rd 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 3rd 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.
Commenting on the report findings, Sheena Horgan, Drinkaware CEO said: “15 years of age is the average age of the first drink in Ireland. But average doesn’t tell the full story. This study shows how attitudes, and behaviours shift markedly across 13 to 15 year olds (1st to 3rd year), meaning alcohol education before this age is vital. Maynooth University’s rigorous and independent evaluation shows how programmes like Drinkaware’s JC AEP can make a significant contribution to the prevention/delay of underage drinking.”
Lead author of the study, Professor Sinéad McGilloway, Founder Director of the Centre for Mental Health and Community Research at Maynooth University’s Dept. of Psychology said: “To date, public policy on alcohol has primarily focused on older teenagers. However, our research clearly indicates that we need to engage with our children at a much earlier age. The collective findings of this study suggest that Drinkaware’s Alcohol Education Programme is a useful, feasible and high quality programme that is successfully engaging and empowering young people to develop sustained improvements in knowledge, awareness, understanding, confidence and appropriate decision-making skills around the consumption of alcohol The results also highlight the important role that parents play in protecting and educating their children on alcohol, and a need to provider better support to them in this regard”.
Commenting on the next steps for Drinkaware and the Junior Cycle Alcohol Education Programme Horgan said: “With this research clearly indicating how alcohol education can be effective, the time to act is now. We must progress and scale evidence-informed education programmes, such as the JCAEP, at a national level and also look at potential programmes for 11–12 year olds if the disturbing trajectory of underage drinking and continuance of alcohol harm is to be halted. There is no place for alcohol in childhood, and through the collective efforts of Irish society, from educators to parents, to charities such as Drinkaware, we can make a difference to the next generation’s relationship with alcohol.”