THE level of alcohol use among 11 to 16-year-olds in one North-East town has gone down significantly in each of the past three years, according to the biggest continuous survey of youth opinion in the country.

Results from this year’s Healthy Behaviours Survey of nearly 4,000 Darlington secondary pupils, show that more than 94 per cent of pupils say they did not get drunk in the past week, compared with 90 per cent in 2009, and 92 per cent in 2010.

The survey also shows that 98 per cent did not use drugs when the survey was taken last year, the same proportion as in 2010, but a big drop compared to the 90 per cent reported in 2009.

Education bosses think that frequent stories in the media about young people drinking to excess and using drugs helps to create a false impression that this is normal.

However, Darlington Borough Council’s “social norms” initiative is beginning to correct this and help reduce levels of alcohol and drug use.

The first pilot scheme four years ago highlighted huge differences between perceived alcohol or drug use among young people and the much lower actual use.

A co-ordinated social norm teaching programme, managed by the drug and alcohol action team, has delivered steady improvements.

The approach uses a combination of an online anonymous survey and follow-up teaching and message-based campaigns to get across accurate information.

As part of the campaign, some Darlington buses have carried slogans stating: “Well Over 9/10 Young People Did Not Drink In The Last Week”.

The latest results confirm that Darlington teenagers have gained a far more informed view.

Officials believe this has helped remove peer pressure and deter them from drinking or trying drugs.

Young people are reporting less alcohol and drug use, they think it is less common to take part in these behaviours now than in previous years and they also feel more strongly that these behaviours are not okay.

This year, the survey was completed by more than three-quarters of years seven to 11 pupils from six out of seven secondary schools.

The six schools have completed the work for three years running and the approach is thought to be the only one of its kind, nationally to have collected so much information. The approach allows Darlington’s local NHS services, children’s services and schools to understand issues faced by young people and target teaching and help accordingly.

There have also been reductions in reported street drinking, drink-related admissions to hospital and anti-social behaviour in the town in recent years.