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Alcohol and school functions: Do they go together?

As the school year comes to an end it’s not unusual for me to receive a flurry of emails from parents regarding the provision of alcohol at school functions. Last year was no exception, so I thought I’d share a couple of these and let you know how I responded.

“At my son’s school’s Awards Night, which all parents and their sons were encouraged to attend, both my wife and I were surprised to see alcohol being served. As we entered the school’s auditorium, prior to the actual ceremony, we were both offered a free glass of champagne. A bar had been set-up where you could purchase alcohol throughout the night, including spirits, and it seemed as though most of the adults present were drinking. Our son is 14 and has only recently joined the school and we were quite taken aback. What was most concerning to us was that we saw a number of parents either pass a half glass of champagne to their son (in school uniform) to finish off and, in one case, actually purchase a beer for them. By the end of the night (drinks continued to be served after the ceremony), there were a number of parents who were obviously intoxicated. We’re not prudes (we both like a drink but didn’t drink that night because we had our son with us) but found the whole thing quite bizarre. Is this usual practice at other schools?” 

“We recently attended a primary school ‘Year 5 dinner’ with our 10-year-old daughter at a very expensive Melbourne private school which was, in effect, primarily an adult cocktail party where free champagne was served at the start and alcohol was being sold by the bottle throughout the night. The only other available drink was water and cordial for the children. By the end of the night all adults who drank (my estimate 95%, excluding myself and a couple of others) seemed at least a bit tipsy and a few inebriated. I’d be grateful for your view on this topic.”

My first experience with the whole alcohol and school functions issue was in the late 1990s. A group of Year 12s from a Catholic boys’ school had apparently ‘gone on the rampage’ after drinking too much at an end-of-year function and it had all been caught on CCTV. The tabloid press grabbed the story and the school found itself in the centre of a PR nightmare. The principal was quick to react and contacted a number of ‘experts’ in the area of adolescent behaviour and alcohol and other drugs (myself included) and asked us to help them with a response. We surveyed the school community – students, staff and parents – to try to find out what was going on with alcohol, looked at their policies and procedures and a report was provided with a series of recommendations. One of those was around the provision of alcohol at school events.

What became glaringly obvious when looking at the school’s social calendar was that alcohol was at the centre of almost every event, regardless of the time of day or whether students were present or not. Presentation nights, sporting events, information evenings and even parent-teacher meetings – alcohol was provided. To promote good role modelling and to try to send a positive message to the students (i.e., you can socialize without drinking alcohol), one of the recommendations suggested that the school consider making those parent functions where students were present alcohol-free. For some reason (and I’ve never worked out why), the principal decided to take this one step further and ban alcohol at all school functions (even those not held on school property) – completely! About two months later I had a phone call from a friend of mine who worked at the school to tell me that the ban had been lifted. Apparently, they had to reverse the decision as they had had two parent functions since the ban had been implemented and no-one had turned up – not even the Organising Committee! Extremely sad, but true – alcohol wasn’t available so no-one came!

Over the years I have seen a number of principals almost lose their jobs as a result of their decision to try to make changes in this area. But change has occurred for the most part and many schools have now tightened their rules around the provision of alcohol on school property and, most particularly, at any event where students are present. This all came to a head in 2013 when the national media ran a story about teachers at primary and secondary schools in Melbourne reporting ‘drunken parents’ assaulting a staff member at a school activity and disrupting a valedictory function. As a result of the incident, the school banned alcohol at all future events. Around the same time, one of the schools I visit narrowly avoided similar media attention when an ambulance was called to their Year 12 Graduation Night after one of the mothers became so drunk she was found unconscious in the toilet. Hopefully things have moved forward since then …

Unfortunately, the exception appears to be in primary schools. I have emails from parents from Independent, Catholic and state primary schools who talk about Mothers’ Groups who go through bottles of wine on school property, school fetes which have a number of bars running through the day, Mums and Dads who take champagne to the Swimming Carnival and the list goes on and on. I was recently speaking to a primary school principal who told me that when she had recently tried to change the culture and make events held at her school ‘alcohol-free’, she was told in no uncertain terms that if she moved ahead with the plan that would be the end of seeing any fathers at events!

So do alcohol and school functions go together? I think this is a fairly simple and straightforward issue. Firstly, if there are students present, regardless of age, that event should be alcohol-free. Awards nights, graduation dinners, information evenings, mother-daughter breakfasts, sporting events during school time or on the weekend – it doesn’t matter – if kids are there, alcohol isn’t! If the parents don’t show up, it’s their loss, no-one else’s. If they really are not going to show up to one of their child’s key milestones because there’s no alcohol, they have a problem plain and simple. To those who say that providing alcohol at these events can demonstrate ‘responsible drinking’, I simply ask them to attend one of these events and see how much alcohol some of people drink. There are very few Parent Information Evenings that I present at now where alcohol is provided but on the rare occasion when it does happen it astounds me how many glasses some people can ‘down’ before the talk begins. For parent-only events I see no problems with alcohol being provided or sold. Alcohol is a legal product and it plays a key role in many Australian adults’ socializing. Why shouldn’t alcohol be made available? The only proviso I have in this area is when these functions are held on school grounds. There have been a number of times over the years where I have rolled up at a school on Monday morning to find literally crates and crates of empty bottles piled up against a wall, all left from a weekend event. That is not a ‘good-look’ and what message does it send to the students? Years ago, I would have suggested that all school functions that provided alcohol be held off school grounds but that’s just not the reality anymore. So many schools, particularly those in the private sector, have now built function centres for such events. Once again, it’s quite simple, if alcohol is going to be made available, make sure it’s cleaned up afterwards.

What about primary schools? As an ex-primary school teacher, the stories I am now hearing about what is happening across the country simply blows my mind! I hate to sound like my Dad but ‘you wouldn’t have seen that in my day!’ The idea of any parent bringing a bottle of wine to drink at a primary school’s Mothers’ Group or a sporting or swimming carnival during the day is just abhorrent! What must these people be thinking? If you want to meet up with a group of other women and share a bottle of wine at 2pm in the afternoon – go for it, you’re an adult and you can do what you want – but do it off school property and away from children.

As a parent you are your child’s most important teacher. Every word and action, especially during the primary years, helps shape their ideas in all sorts of areas. They will mimic your behaviour, both good and bad, so positive role modelling is vital. Alcohol is a part of our culture and any non-drinker will tell you that it’s extremely difficult to avoid social situations which don’t involve drinking. It would be wonderful if schools, particularly primary schools, were able to provide events or functions that were alcohol-free – to allow our kids to see for themselves that it is possible to socialize and have a good time without drinking. Even though we’ve come a long way, it seems as if we have a way to go yet before we see real change.

Published: February 2018

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