In November 2012, I opened up an email from my daughters' primary school inviting them to the PTA's Christmas Disco.
Alongside the enticement of a visit from Father Christmas, games and a 'glow shop' (whatever that is...) was the promise of 'hot dogs, chips and a licensed bar'...
Leaving aside the nutritional value to be gained from hot dog and chips, I'd been working in the world of problem alcohol and drug use long enough to find the idea of a licensed bar at a primary school disco - even one aimed at the whole family - inappropriate.
I'll make it clear from the outset that alcohol was only being sold to adults but it left me concerned about the impression this was making on the children.
I wondered whether the head teacher was even aware of it, so I shared my views through the (somewhat unreliable) channel of my younger daughter's home-school communications book.
A reply arrived, by email, a few days later. The head teacher assured me that as the responsible person for health and safety, they'd ensured 'that a detailed risk assessment is in place to ensure that the potential risk posed by a bar is low and managed appropriately'.
The invitation from my daughters' school
She told me that it was their usual habit to include a licensed bar at the 'family disco' and that she had not received any other negative feedback about it. Bottom line...I was wrong and had been put firmly in my place.
Undaunted, I chatted with some other parents. Very few saw anything odd about a bar in a primary school during an event for children. Some joked - as you do - that they'd need a drink to get through a two-hour school disco.
At least, I hope they were joking...
Of course, my children's school might be unusual. I checked it out. It's not. Over 8,000 licenses were issued to primary schools in England in 2012/13. Around one for every three primary schools. That's a lot of alcohol at a lot of events for children.
Although my views were unwelcome at the school, on a professional level, I couldn't let this go.
Primary School Matters
I took another look at the published research about children's exposure to alcohol. It says that:
• a child's view of drinking is influenced significantly by their experiences between the ages of 6 and 10 years, with 10 being a critical age (Miller, Smith, and Goldman, 1990). So what they see in primary school matters for the rest of their lives
• children tend to model drinking patterns and styles on their parents (White and Jackson, 2004; White, et al, 2000)
• if parents have positive expectations around drinking, then children are likely to have positive expectations around drinking (Dunn, M.E. and Goldman, M.S., 1998). If parents expect drinking to make them happy, sociable, relaxed, then children will expect drink to do this for them too
So, what might happen if the boundary between social events for children and adults is blurred, so that children see their parents expecting to drink alcohol, even in the children's social space?
Fast forward a few years to the moment when a fourteen year old is leaving for a party and the parent says 'I hope there's no alcohol there...'. Should we be surprised if the young person has no comprehension of a social event without alcohol, and a belief that they need to drink to have a good time? Have we inadvertently modelled the behaviour we later condemn?
I don't want to scare you, but did you know that an average of 36 children and young people aged under 18 are admitted to hospital every day with alcohol-related conditions in England alone? Alcohol can be a killer.
Every one of those young people is somebody's child, and their drinking habits were probably influenced between the ages of 6 and 10. I don't think we can afford to be complacent or assume that we are sending our children into the world with safe drinking habits, can we?
Since I started to talk about this, I have had overwhelming support from charities and individuals who know about problem drinking.
I raised it at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Misuse. I think it's fair to say that the panel was shocked by the statistics I offered, and the Chair of the group, Tracey Crouch MP, has welcomed calls for a change in licensing. So it's not just me.
The response from parents and schools has been mixed. Those that support alcohol at children's discos say that it's OK, if not beneficial, for children to see adults drinking responsibly. It's a common belief, but it isn't supported wholeheartedly by research evidence, which points equally to possible benefit and potential harm.
And while responsible drinking is important, most people forget that the range of responsible drinking choices includes being alcohol-free. So - even if we want our children to observe responsible drinking (define responsible...there's a whole other blog about that!) - if we include alcohol in child-centred events, we miss the opportunity to show them that adults can have fun where there is no alcohol.
We asked people about responsible drinking as part of our '£21 billion drink' fringe events
In a few years time, those primary school children will get to 16. They will join the age group where nearly 70% drink above recommended levels and where over 40%binge drink. On average, British teenagers are among the most likely in Europe to admit to binge drinking, according to research.
If our young people are most influenced by their parents, between the ages of 6 and 10, are we doing a good enough job in the 'responsible drinking' department? Is a chance to offer an alternative influence, without alcohol, a precious opportunity where our schools could take a lead?
Why is this happening? My view is that we just don't think before we drink and we are too accepting of ideas which discourage criticism of drinking behaviour. And the systems that might prompt us to think fail us too.
Licensing a temporary event is relatively easy. There is a simple form to fill in and the local authority will grant the license, automatically, unless the police or environmental health teams object within three days of receiving it - which is highly unlikely.
At no time is the applicant asked to consider whether it's appropriate to sell alcohol at the event they are planning, so we shouldn't be surprised if they don't do so.
Without objections, the local authority is not able to consider whether it's appropriate to sell alcohol at the event, so we shouldn't be surprised if they don't do so.
How can we introduce thinking into the process?
Local authorities could be given powers to consider the audience for the event before granting a license. If the event is child-centred - one where the grown-ups wouldn't be at if their children weren't going - then it shouldn't be licensed unless there is a compelling argument to do so.
Hands up if you're in
And our primary school head teachers could adopt a leadership position by agreeing not to sell alcohol at school events.
Perhaps they should go further and agree not to include alcohol as prizes in raffles, tombolas and other fund-raisers that their pupils participate in. The smile on my 9 year old's face when she told me she had won a four pack of lager was an absolute picture. Of course, she doesn't drink lager. I'd much rather she had won a jigsaw puzzle or even a pot of that slimey alien goo that gets all over the furniture. In the end, I swapped it with another parent for a pack of pot pourri. But, in a small part of my child's mind, she had learnt that winning and lager go together.
If they can bear it, head teachers could agree not to encourage or accept gifts of alcohol, whether from pupils, parents or suppliers. The Director of an agency that raises awareness of alcohol harm, who is also a serving police officer, a parent and a school governor described teachers' desks at the end of term as 'like a shelf from Bargain Booze'. I'm sure we could find other things for our children to associate with an act of appreciation, if we put our minds to it.
Our primary schools could be alcohol-free zones, so that our children grow up appreciating that alcohol doesn't have to be everywhere and that happiness isn't necessarily associated with a bottle or a can.
I know that, to achieve this, our primary school head teachers probably need to know some more of what I, and other people who deal with the effects of alcohol misuse on a daily basis, know about the impact on our children of early exposure to adult drinking, and that unproven beliefs about children benefitting from seeing adults drinking aren't a blanket permission to place alcohol in the children's social spaces.
You can help. If you are a parent, or a teacher, please click the 'share' button on this blog and forward it to a head teacher or school you know. If you'd like to see a change in the licensing laws, forward it to your MP and your local councillors to share your views with them.
And I'd love to know whether you think we should continue to sell alcohol at primary school discos, or not - just comment below, and tell me what you think.
This blog first appeared on the Swanswell website.