Young people typically initiate alcohol use while at school and their drinking is the cause of major social and public health problems. As a consequence, there is obvious appeal to school based alcohol education. However, to date, success has been limited.
School alcohol education dates from the late 19th century, but drug education as a whole expanded considerably during the fifties and sixties. Programs of that era emphasised abstinence and drew on behaviour theory as the basis for their change strategies. So called scare tactics paired fear arousal with use, in an attempt to establish negative attitudes to alcohol and other drugs. Another approach involved providing "factual" information on the negative consequences of use. Evaluations of these programs indicated that they were largely ineffective in changing behaviour. This spurred two developments during the seventies, affective programs and abuse prevention. The former sought to reduce alcohol and other drug use by enhancing personal development, but again research evidence indicated little impact. The latter sought to prevent the problematic consequences associated with use and could be considered harm reduction. In America, official support for abuse prevention was short lived and abstinence focused programs resurfaced during the eighties. However this time, interventions drew on social influence approaches, which sought to boost resistance to use, through social skills training. Harm reduction education tended to be adopted more in Europe and Australia. Here there is greater acceptance of the logic of using such an approach with alcohol, because the drug is legally available and use by young people is prevalent.
The evolution of alcohol education has in the main been driven by failure to achieve the desired behaviour change. In part, this failure was due to an unrealistic emphasis on abstinence, further compounded by poor science. There are however, indications that recent alcohol education programs are more rigorous, have goals other than abstinence and have achieved behaviour change. Reviews and meta-analyses of recent alcohol and other drug education programs indicate that successful programs tend to include interactive social skills training and normative belief components, whereas programs that do not have a sustained effect, tend to rely on didactic resistance training.
Most alcohol education for young people is classroom based. However, school health promotion research has indicated that health behaviour is best shaped by an integrated, "whole of school" approach. A number of studies have involved the community in drug education programs, on the basis that the cues from the social environment are critical in establishing adolescent patterns of alcohol use and strategies to reduce adolescent access to alcohol can only be enacted at a community level. The benefits of such a community wide approach are promising, but need to be seen in the context of the resources involved.
Alcohol education has developed considerably in the last decade, but particular programs are often adopted because they are aggressively marketed, rather than because they are demonstrably effective. Alcohol education in the future needs to be more realistic about its goals and accountable for its achievements. An approach that is broadly useful has to acknowledge that the majority of young people will drink and that education should equip them handle drinking situations in a way that reduces harm.