How one school is fighting underage drinking - and hoping to lift NAPLAN scores

Illustration: Matt Golding
Illustration: Matt Golding 

One in 10 grade six students binge drink in Knox. This includes children as young as 11.

It's one of the many startling statistics revealed in a survey of 400 young people that is raising alarm bells for a local state school, Fairhills High School. 

But there's more: one in three year eight students had their last drink in the past 30 days in Knox, according to the survey, compared with only 18 per cent of students nationally.

Fairhills High School acting assistant principal Adrienne Tanner with year 7 students. The school is testing out a ...
Fairhills High School acting assistant principal Adrienne Tanner with year 7 students. The school is testing out a program to help students resist peer pressure.  Photo: Eddie Jim

Nearly 40 per cent of year eight students said their parents let them drink, which is double the national average.

Half of the children responding to the local survey said their parents had supplied them with alcohol.

The shocking snapshot of Knox, a middle class area in Melbourne's east, has propelled Fairhills High School to wage a war against underage drinking.

The school is adopting an ambitious program called Resilient Families, which is being trialled at 14 Victorian schools by Deakin University in partnership with VicHealth and a non-profit education research centre, Evidence for Learning.

But the trial comes with a twist: researchers will be tracking the campaign's effect on NAPLAN scores and retention rates.

Previous trials have shown that the Deakin University program boosts retention rates and lowers alcohol intake and depression, but this will be the first time that a link will be made between alcohol consumption and academic performance. 


Evidence for Learning director Matthew Deeble said too many schools mistakenly saw social and emotional support as being divorced from academic results.

"It doesn't have to be either/or," he said. "The evidence-base globally says if you focus on activities like social and emotional learning that can have an increase in academic achievement."

Fairhills teachers are now sending home brochures urging parents to remove alcohol from their children's reach.

Later this year, they will start an intensive eight-week parenting course, which will encourage parents to discuss their expectations around drinking, parties and homework.

The program, which will be run at the school by a psychologist, is also aimed at helping parents improve their communication style.

"I imagine it will be quite confronting for parents," acting assistant principal Adrienne Tanner said.

A separate 10-week program for students feels a bit like couples therapy, only for teens and their parents.​  

The 45-minute sessions move away from the standard drug and alcohol program by helping students improve their skills in solving social problems so they can overcome peer pressure.

The idea is that by improving students' resilience, and their relationship with their parents, this can help manage students' risky behaviours, Ms Tanner said.

The program asks the teens to deconstruct a series of hypotheticals: Tina has pushed her mother into a wall after she was being yelled at for wagging school. Rowan's parents have recently split, and his mother has just told him off for speaking to his father on the phone. Emily is paralysed by nerves on her first day at a new school and struggling to socialise.

In each of these scenarios, the students are asked to explore how the characters are feeling, and come up with ways to resolve the conflict.

They talk through the scenarios with each other, and at home with their parents, giving parents a practical exercise in "coaching" their children on managing difficult situations, said the program's creator, Deakin University professor John Toumbourou.

The Resilient Families program has run in 29 schools across the country over almost two decades.