New drinking guidelines introduced two weeks ago suggest that the recommended amount of alcohol consumed a week should drop from 21 units to 14 units for both men and women due to links between overconsumption and multiple forms of cancer. This more severe approach has reinvigorated the age old debate on how to prevent a thriving binge drinking culture from defining the youth of the 21st century.
Two leading independent schools, Rugby School and Ampleforth College, have introduced a controversial new approach to alcohol education. They are working in collaboration with parents to allow students aged 16 and over to consume limited amounts of alcohol on select school premises at weekends. Students are restricted to lower percentage alcoholic beverages such as beer, cider and wine, and are closely monitored by staff. The aim is to integrate a healthy drinking culture prior to the legal drinking age of 18, thus making alcohol less of a novelty. The hope is that some prior experience and increased responsibility will allow for better individual judgement, and remove a stubborn barrier between adolescent and adult attitudes to drinking.
The question remains as to whether or not this is an effective system that can be integrated into society on a larger scale. Both schools report that there have been few incidents to suggest a need to revert back or change strategy so far, but in many respects these colleges are fairly atypical. For young adults within the confines of an enclosed boarding environment, there certainly appear to be advantages in this integration, as parents are unable to introduce their impressions of alcohol and its relevance so frequently.
In a non-boarding school social restrictions are, for the most part, less strict, or at least more variable. Parents only have to cater for the needs of a few rather than for an entire boarding house. The motives, then, behind introducing alcohol to non-boarding sixth forms would appear to be slightly different. Again it would remove a barrier to adulthood, but for most 16 to 18 year olds that’s not a huge issue, as for those who want to drink in excess it’s fairly easy to get alcohol through friends or family. Any form of school bar monitored by members of staff after hours might appear impractical and, for many teens, a laughably patronising and unnecessary introduction. It’s the need to binge drink that is ingrained and even occasionally celebrated in our society that may have to change.
Mediterranean drinking habits traditionally see alcohol as an accompaniment for meals rather than purely for getting a high, an attitude that is far healthier. So, could limited alcohol availability in sixth forms during the day with a meal be a way of introducing a healthier attitude towards alcohol? Perhaps, but many would think it risky to assume that a difference in cultural behaviour like consumption habits could be so easily changed. There may be many underlying factors which would be difficult to alter. Northern European countries like Scotland, Germany and Scandinavian countries, for example, share a colder climate, fewer hours of sunlight, and different crops available for fermentation, all of which are thought to have affected past and present societal habits. In any case, it is very possible that despite the maturity gained from handing over a considerable amount of responsibility to students, in a school it could prove to be a hindrance to learning and a major distraction from the academic education that many seek from school.
A major question that must be addressed is whether it encourages alcohol consumption, and whether this in itself is to blame for our boozy binge habits? The answer is probably that we are surrounded by a culture of excessive drinking. From neck nominations and Towie, to pubs and general student living, we are immersed in a drinking culture that hard medical evidence tells us is very damaging to our wellbeing. Any education or insight into a more refined relationship with alcohol is likely to be immensely beneficial.
Image – Kimery Davis