Shock of Ulster's underage boozers
Major rise in suspensions of schoolchildren for drinking
A shocking rise in the number of cases of schoolchildren being suspended for underage drinking today sparked demands for alcohol abuse among Ulster youths to be tackled head-on.
The call comes after new government statistics show there were 70 incidents of children - from both primary and secondary schools across Northern Ireland - being suspended in 2004/05 due to alcohol abuse.
In 2003/04 there were 51 cases of children being suspended within the province's five education boards.
The most startling figures show that in the Southern Education and Library Board area the number of incidents of pupils being excluded from school because of drinking jumped from eight cases in 2003/04 to 27 in 2004/05.
In Belfast the figure doubled from three cases to six during that period.
In the North Eastern Education and Library Board area the number jumped from zero cases to 16 incidents.
In the Western Education and Library Board there were 11 incidents of pupils being suspended during 2003/04 - while 14 cases were reported in 2004/05.
The South Eastern Education and Library Board area was the only region with the figure dropping - from 29 to seven cases.
The statistics were published after Education Minister Caitriona Ruane was asked by DUP MLA Iris Robinson to detail the number of pupils excluded from schools as a result of alcohol abuse.
Mrs Robinson described the figures as "extremely alarming".
"Too often when statistics of this nature are published there is a tendency to shift the focus onto schools and ask how government policy can provide solutions," she said.
"However the focus must be fixed on the parents.
"Parents are obviously turning a blind eye to the activities of their children and in so doing are abdicating their responsibility.
"We have moved to a situation where young people are engaging in binge drinking and have a dependency on alcohol before they even leave school.
"While there are legal steps which can be taken to curb this problem, parents must acknowledge their duty to safeguard the health and well-being of their children."
However, Raymond McKimm, project manager of Lifematters- a youth intervention programme aimed at helping eight to 17-year-olds who have misused alcohol - says removing children from school only enhances the problem.
"The reasons why children misuse substances vary from young person to young person," he said.
"But one of the biggest factors is if they are marginalised, pushed to the side and not achieving at school.
"But the irony is they are the factors that will increase their risk or likelihood of further substance misuse.
The Lifematters Programme is part of ASCERT, (Action on Substances, through Community Education and Related Training), which was established in 1998 to address substance misuse at a community level.
"Once we start branding and marginalising we are simply creating a bigger problem," Mr McKimm added.
"Sadly the alternative of expulsion, suspension and alternative education is something that will maintain the problem rather than solve the problem.
"Our message to people working in education is to work with us to engage young people and keep them in school.
"What is important is getting below the surface and looking at what influences the choices and decisions a young person makes."