Tuesday, 12 May 2015
I thank the Cathaoirleach and welcome to the Visitors' Gallery Ms Siobhán Creaton from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and Ms Suzanne Costello from Alcohol Action Ireland. The issue I have raised with the Minister for Education and Skills pertains to the role the drinks industry is trying to develop with regard to the education of children in Ireland. I will begin by applauding the Government on the public health (alcohol) Bill. As a member of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, I have been very much involved in the consultations and the process. If anything, I would like it to go further, but I certainly will do everything I can to ensure that it comes into law.
However, as part of those consultations, the first red flag went up for me when I saw, for example, the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland saying how the industry decided in 2014 to refocus its initiatives in the education space and to concentrate activity on drinkaware.ie. It currently is establishing Drinkaware as an organisation whose work will be modelled upon the influential UK Drinkaware Trust. Unfortunately, if one looks at independent evaluations of Drinkaware in the United Kingdom, one concludes that it is not a model we wish to see in our schools. It has not come out well from an evaluation. Not surprisingly, the drinks industry believes it is excellent, which makes me even more worried about it. The second flag for me was the Stop Out-of-Control Drinking campaign, rolemodels.ie, which is due to produce its report shortly. I can nearly see what this report will say. It will state that we need to educate children, because this is the constant mantra of the drinks industry - namely, that education is needed and that, were everyone educated, it would reduce our risk regarding alcohol-related harm.All the evidence shows that education informs our behaviour but that it does not change or influence it. That is why we introduce laws in respect of, for example, speeding. We all know what is good or bad for us, but legislation is often necessary in order to ensure that we do what is right.A recent drinkaware.ieadvertisement relating to the post of education programme manager refers to the successful applicant working directly with schools. This is despite the fact that a spokesperson for drinkaware.ieindicated that this is not intended to be the case. If that is so, then the advertisement to which I refer misrepresents the position, because it refers to working with teachers, unions, principals, the Professional Development Service for Teachers, the Department of Education and Skills and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. It is obvious that those responsible for drinkaware.iewant it to become embedded within the education system. I know someone who applied for the position of education programme manager but whose application was unsuccessful. The person in question was informed about the rolemodels.iecampaign, which is going to lead to what I have just outlined. There are no surprises here.
The HSE is not often applauded, but I want to take this opportunity to applaud it most heartily. On 23 April the executive issued a statement to the effect that it is no longer prepared to take any money from the drinks industry and that it will not be associated with said industry, particularly in the context of public health advice or any form of partnership. The statement in question was quite unequivocal in terms of public health advocacy. In my opinion, it reflects what the World Health Organization has said, namely, that public health policies concerning alcohol need to be formulated by public health interests without interference from commercial interests. I am seeking an assurance from the Minister of State that the drinks industry will play no role in our schools. The HSE has worked on the SPHE model with schools. I am concerned by the fact that the National Parents' Council Primary has put its name to the rolemodels.iecampaign, and I really hope it will withdraw its support. The National Parents' Council Post-Primary has distanced itself from the campaign and indicated that it would question the motive behind any campaign funded by the drinks industry and aimed at educating our children.
I tabled this matter because I believed the time was right to do so. What I have stated reflects Government policy. We cannot just leave matters stand and wait to discover what people think. The majority of people do not know that drinkaware.ieequals the drinks industry. The idea of representatives from the tobacco industry going into schools and telling children about anti-cessation measures relating to smoking is abhorrent. We should also abhor the fact that those in the drinks industry even think it is acceptable for their representatives to go into our schools. It will be reprehensible if the Department of Education and Skills says that it is sorry but there is nothing it can do about this matter. It is not acceptable for those in the drinks industry - regardless of whatever costume they may choose to wear - to have any hand, act or part in the education of the children of Ireland.
I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, who sends her apologies.
The Department of Education and Skills is working very closely with the Department of Health in respect of the overall Healthy Ireland agenda. This encompasses co-operation in a range of areas including physical activity, healthy eating and student well-being, as well as substance misuse. At national level, the Department of Education and Skills is represented on key Government structures that provide a co-ordinated approach to addressing substance misuse. These include the national co-ordinating committee for drug and alcohol task forces. The Minister does not believe it appropriate for her to write to schools to prohibit particular materials or resources that may be developed by certain organisations, including the drinks industry. This could form a dangerous precedent for the future. However, officials at the Department of Education and Skills will continue to co-operate with the HSE and the Department of Health to ensure a co-ordinated and partnership approach to alcohol misuse and the range of other areas that are encompassed by the Healthy Ireland agenda. One recent example of such co-operation is the development of healthy lifestyle guidance that is currently being finalised. This guidance is intended to encourage schools to promote physical activity and healthy eating. It is also designed to encourage their participation in the health-promoting schools initiative, which is supported by the Department of Health and the HSE.
It is important to recognise that while education has a role to play in addressing the problem of alcohol misuse, behavioural change will not happen without the support and co-operation of parents, industry and society as a whole. Parents have a responsibility to help children and young people to adopt sensible and responsible attitudes and behaviours regarding alcohol and drug abuse. At present, the education sector is supporting national policy on substance misuse. In particular, schools are equipping students with the key skills and knowledge to enable them to make informed choices when faced with a range of difficult situations.This includes providing students with age appropriate information on the issue of alcohol abuse through aspects of the curriculum such as the social, personal and health education, SPHE, programme. This programme is mandatory in all primary schools. It will also form part of the new mandatory Wellbeing component of junior cycle, along with physical education and civic, social and political education, CSPE. Schools are also encouraged to deliver the SPHE programme in senior cycle. The substance use module of the SPHE curriculum focuses on the issues relating to the use and misuse of a range of substances. It actively seeks to promote healthy and responsible choices by students in a range of areas, including alcohol.
The latest data taken from Department of Education and Skills' Lifeskills survey 2012 indicate that 90% of primary and 100% of post-primary schools provide their students with information on alcohol abuse through SPHE and other means. These results were almost identical to the position reported by schools through the 2009 Lifeskills survey. The 2015 Lifeskills survey is currently being completed by schools and the Minister hopes to publish the results before the end of the year. This will allow for the measurement of schools' progress in this area since 2012.
Schools have access to a number of programmes and resources that support the delivery of SPHE and increase students' awareness of well-being, including drug and alcohol issues. Examples include the Walk Tall programme for primary pupils and a post-primary resource available from the Professional Development Service for Teachers, called On My Own Two Feet. It is a matter for schools and teachers in the first instance to determine what resources and supports they will use to support their implementation of the curriculum. Teachers are equipped to make such decisions as a result of their initial teacher education and the ongoing support provided by the Professional Development Service for Teachers. I am confident that teachers are best placed to identify the most suitable resources to assist them in delivering the SPHE curriculum in their classrooms.
I listened carefully to the Senator's contribution. She has raised red flags in respect of alcohol awareness and the industry in regard to that. She has been strong and logical about this. The Senator also referred to education, behaviour and role models and expressed concern about the involvement of the drinks industry in both primary and post-primary schools. She made some good points and I will ensure they are highlighted to the Minister. I will ask her to consider the important issues the Senator has raised.
I thank the Minister of State and appreciate that he was not in a position to answer my questions but perhaps he will also relay these questions to the Minister. The drinkaware.iejob advertisement for education programme manager states: "To manage relationships with relevant stakeholders, including the Department of Education, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the Professional Development Service for Teachers". These are all within the Minister's remit. I cannot see any reason for the drinks industry to have a relationship with the Department or the NCCA. I seek the Minister's assurance that they will not have a relationship with the industry.
I appreciate the Minister cannot write to schools to say they cannot do this but, at the very least, could she write to them to advise them that drinkaware.ie equals the drinks industry. It is nothing else. drinkaware.ie is the costume the industry chooses to wear today. It will come up with something else when drinkaware.ieis exposed to people. Schools need to be warned and a warning bell is needed in this regard.