As if the first day back at school wasn’t bad enough, children starting secondary school in England this week will be the first to be legally required to stay in education until they are 17. Next year, the mandatory school leaving age will rise again to 18 for next year's secondary school starters, with the aim of getting more young people into further education.
And while those filtering through the school gates in Scotland can look forward to leaving the clutches of the education system at 16, they may now find themselves restricted from enjoying a drink in the confines of their own home until they are 21. Under new proposals, under 21s in Scotland will be barred from buying alcohol from supermarkets and off-licenses in order to stem the binge-drinking epidemic sweeping the nation.
The state would argue that these measures will prevent youngsters from falling into a life of booze-fuelled crime – a noble aim. But, why is it simply not enough to advertise the benefits of staying in school or the dangers of alcohol and leave young adults to choose? Indeed, the moves appear to be symptomatic of a wider belief that young people do not have the capacity to make informed and sensible choices. It is these young people that are then chastised for lacking personal responsibility. If the state wants young people to shoulder their responsibilities then it stands to reason that they must be given the chance to learn to exercise them. And that includes making decisions that might not necessarily be in their best interests and learning from them.
And, another thought (or three). First, if schools were forced to compete to attract pupils (as they would do under proposals to adopt a model of school choice in the UK) maybe they would do more to try to keep them there? Second, blaming cheap supermarket booze for our social ills ignores the deeper cultural issues that make British drinkers more susceptible to drinking too much. Countries with far less restrictive attitudes to alcohol tend to have fewer problems with youth alcohol abuse. Third, perhaps legislators need to consider that it is the existence of the welfare state that has promoted low levels of aspiration and personal responsibility among young people leading both to school dropouts and the existence of a binge-drinking culture?