Neil McNicholas: There are tried and tested answers to these social ills

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LET me take three current social concerns: binge drinking, falling educational standards, and the demise of discipline. Is there, or has there been, a case of collective amnesia in our recent and current politicians, or are they simply too young to remember? Why do they insist on re-inventing the wheel when lessons from our past are there for the learning? And how is it that these lessons, so obvious for all to see, are ignored?

We know from the situation with cigarettes that simply increasing the price of alcoholic drinks isn’t going to stop people drinking. Just as smokers will always find the money, so will drinkers.

Increasing taxes, or stopping special offers, or imposing minimum prices in supermarkets won’t achieve anything other than penalising responsible drinkers. And the more attempts are made to stigmatise binge drinking, the more people will do it.

Why do our politicians not seem to see that our current problems began when pubs and clubs were allowed to stay open all day and all night? The ludicrous suggestion that the increased availability of alcoholic drinks would encourage a “café culture” in this country was pie in the sky. All it encouraged was a “binge drinking culture”. If you make alcohol available all day and all night, then there will always be those who will drink all day and all night, and sadly many amongst them will be young people.

There were always people who would drink too much, but there were a lot of hours in the day when pubs and off licences weren’t open when they could sober up. Nowadays alcohol is “freely” available day and night and therefore people will binge drink day and night. Surely the obvious first step in addressing, and hopefully correcting, this particular social ill is to return to the old licensing hours (applied also to corner shops and supermarkets)? It worked then and it can work now.

I’m a firm believer in the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. It seems to me that this country already had an excellent education system in place before it was decided to “fix it” by introducing the comprehensive system.

Over the many years since that happened, we have seen standards in our schools fall and are only too well aware of the literacy and numeracy problems that are evident in all too many of those emerging from our education system.

What was wrong with the previous system of grammar and secondary schools which seemed to cater quite adequately for the needs of their respective pupils?

Those who were academically more able found themselves in a system that catered to their needs, as did those for whom a more vocationally-oriented education was more appropriate. What we got with comprehensive schools is a one-size-fits-all system that provides pupils with one-size-fits-all qualifications that are increasingly failing those who have been awarded them.

Successive governments are constantly tinkering with the system – new policies, new curricula, new names for the same old schools – but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. Why don’t we return to the system that was working perfectly well before the government of the day decided to fix what wasn’t broken?

In a similar vein, why aren’t the powers-that-be able to see where and how our current problems with indiscipline first started? If they could see, then the solution to the problem should be obvious to them. As soon as the parental right to discipline children was removed from them, the cracks began to appear. The problem was further increased by removing the right of teachers to discipline their pupils. And things got even worse when the ability of the police to control and deal with anti-social and lawless behaviour, especially in minors, was effectively removed from their hands.

If you are out walking, or out driving your car, and you suddenly realise that you are lost, the simplest and most obvious thing to do is to stop, turn around, and go back to the point at which you went wrong.

Why can’t we do that as a society? When we look at some of the social ills that beset our communities and our country, why do our politicians insist on ploughing ahead with policies and practices that are clearly not working? Why is it so hard for them to admit they are wrong, to back up to where things went wrong, and start again? And not just in any haphazard or novel direction, but along sure and well-trodden paths that have proved to be worthwhile and reliable in the past.

Why keep re-inventing the wheel? If it wasn’t “broke”, then we shouldn’t have tried to fix it, so let’s go back to what worked and give it another try.

Father Neil McNicholas is a priest for St Hilda’s Parish, Whitby.

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