Why Junior Cycle School Alcohol Education matters!

Drinkaware Education Matters Blog

Why does Junior Cycle School Alcohol Education matter? The Department of Education sees its mission as, “To facilitate children and young people, through learning, to achieve their full potential and contribute to Ireland’s social, economic and cultural development.”1 Underage drinking acts as a barrier to achieving this mission. Underage drinking is a complex and difficult issue. While many factors contribute to or prevent young people being at risk of underage drinking including each individual’s personal attributes and environment, education and school can play an important role  

Alcohol is the substance most commonly used by students, globally. Alcohol consumption usually starts in adolescence, in Ireland at 15 years old,2 and this can have negative effects, both short and long term and mentally and physically on the developing young person. It can also impact academic performance and engagement with school, leading to underachievement, failure and drop out. Drinking at a young age is linked to a number of negative consequences for health including accidents, violence and aggression, injuries, chronic health problems such as heart disease, cancers, and dependence. 

The progressive nature of alcohol harm was indicated in Maynooth University’s JC AEP research findings with 38% of year3 students who were drinking, having experienced one or more negative effect of alcohol consumption including physical fights, arguments, accidents/injury and or feeling physically sick/vomiting.  The negative consequence of those drinking impacts non-drinkers for example, damaging the property of others, disruptive classrooms and the injury or loss of life of innocent people. 

Education has a responsibility to protect young people from underage drinking which involves teaching them about alcohol and the consequence of its use and ensuring the development of social and personal skills which empower young people to be healthy and safe. Schools also need to have policies in place including a substance use policy, which supports alcohol education. Engaging with parents, staff and the wider school community is part of a holistic whole school approach.  

Prevention education needs to begin early and address significant transitions in the life of the young person. “Available evidence indicates that prevention is most effective when it starts early; covers all age-groups; targets the critical transition periods e.g., primary to secondary.”3 

The Drinkaware Junior Cycle Alcohol Education Programme is designed to prevent the start of underage drinking and to reduce the number of young people who drink. Maynooth University’s Centre for Mental Health and Community Research undertook the independent, longitudinal evaluation of the programme, led by Professor Sinead Mc Gilloway, Founder Director of the Centre for Mental Health and Community Research (MU Department of Psychology and Social Sciences Institute). The research found that as students progressed through JC AEP, the proportion who expressed no intention or interest in drinking, rose from 30% in year 1 to 54% in year 3. Participation led to sustained improvements in students’ knowledge and understanding of alcohol compared to pre programme delivery. 

The findings reveal the tipping point for first drink is second year which showed a change in attitudes and experiences regarding alcohol.4 The findings also indicated that across all three years, a substantial minority of those who at some stage had consumed alcohol, are drinking more frequently and consuming more drinks in one sitting, as they get older.  

It is important not to create normative beliefs such as “Everyone is drinking”.  If we normalise underage drinking, we give the message it is acceptable and ok to drink under 18, at a time when alcohol can impair the developing brain. Those who are drinking at age 13 are at high or very high-risk drinking behaviour at 17/18 years of age.5 

Prevention education is about more than providing information and raising awareness. It is about challenging beliefs and attitudes and changing behaviour. Prevention is delicate and requires competent, trained teachers who are sensitive to the young people sitting before them, where they are at and coming from. There is no need to frighten young people but a great need to engage them and facilitate them to learn about alcohol. Effective intervention leads to safe, nurturing environments where young people have a voice and feel heard. The JC AEP is about primary prevention. 

The Drinkaware Junior Cycle Alcohol Education Programme meets the requirements for what makes such programmes effective. 6  

  • It has age-appropriate content in each of the 11 lessons. The programme is spiral and developmental with the same themes from first to third year inclusive, taking into account students’ age and stage of development 
  • It engages students and facilitates their voices to be heard and uses interactive, experiential learning methodologies 
  • It promotes understanding of the effects of alcohol, empowers young people to develop personal and social skills which encourage independent decision making about alcohol and to develop strategies to resist peer pressure, to change behaviours and engage in alternatives to alcohol use 
  • It is holistic involving a whole school approach and is supported by workshops for parents and whole staff 
  • It takes a balanced approach, doesn’t use scare or shock tactics or those recovering from alcohol dependency talking about their previous dangerous lifestyles 
  • It is supported by teacher training, which is engaging and collaborative, with a focus on experiential, facilitative learning. The programme is only available to those teachers who attend training 
  • It is developed in line with the Framework for Junior Cycle and SPHE short course. 

When the school, home and community  work together to deliver a consistent message to young people about alcohol it can contribute significantly to reducing underage drinking and alcohol related harm. 

For more information about Drinkaware’s Alcohol Education Programme or to register for the one-day training which takes place online this year on Thursday November 11th or Thursday November 18th, 2021, please contact  

martha@drinkaware.ie or phone 087 9197253


  1. www.education.ie
  2. Drinkaware Index 2019: Analysing Hazardous Drinking in Ireland. Dublin: Drinkaware.
  3. UNESCO 2017, Good Policy and Practice in Health Education, Booklet 10. “Education sector responses to the use of alcohol.” 
  4.  Evaluation of Drinkaware’s Junior Cycle Alcohol Education Programme (JC AEP) 2018-2020. March 2021. Summary Report. Professor Sinead Mc Gilloway and John A Weafer. Drinkaware
  5. Growing up in Ireland, 2020. National Longitudinal Study of Children, Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin.
  6. Morgan, M, (2016) Prevention Programmes and Alcohol: An Overview with recommendations. A Drinkaware commissioned report.