For MOST of the 900,000 young people aged 16 to 18 who are educated in colleges each year, this is the time in their lives when they first start to regularly encounter alcohol. Drinking may be regarded by many impressionable youngsters as a rite of passage, but the advice they receive about alcohol during these seminal years can shape their views for years to come.
However, a new report commissioned by the Association of Colleges (AoC) has warned that funding and policy changes could jeopardise the quality of guidance given to vulnerable teenagers.
Among the most pressing concerns raised by principals is that the perennial focus on schools at the expense of the FE sector has created "blind spots" in national policy. "FE is often not visible to policymakers," the report argues.
Advice about alcohol consumption is usually provided through enrichment time, which is set aside by colleges for delivering everything from tutor time to extra-curricular activities. For the current academic year, this entitlement was slashed by 74 per cent, from 114 hours a year to just 30. The move may have saved the Government as much as #163;640 million, but the consequences for colleges could be serious.
"A material decline in personal, social and health education generally in colleges, where so many young people spend important formative years, would undoubtedly put more of them at risk," the report warns.
Compounding the risk is that one of the main deterrents against scaling down alcohol awareness activities - a ticking off from Ofsted - could also be about to lose its teeth. In the watchdog's proposed new inspection framework for learning and skills providers, there would not be a separate grade for safeguarding or equality and diversity, the categories in which pastoral support would usually be scrutinised. This, the AoC report suggests, could create a "real or apparent reduced interest from Ofsted in pastoralwelfare education in FE".
"Colleges may well consider that, if the quality assurance system - as well as the funding system - does not expressly support these activities, then at times of financial constraint they may be scaled down. On the basis of the practice reported here, students would lose out," the report said.
"Much greater focus could be given to the colleges and training organisations managing young people's learning in these formative years, in terms of Government recognition of the personal, social and health education they do."
Report author Jim Aleander was appointed interim principal at South Leicester College earlier this year. He told TES that, for many young people, entering the "more adult environment" of FE institutions can prove challenging. Without the proper support, this would only get more difficult.
"The FE sector does a huge amount for young people's personal education, particularly with 16 to 19-year-olds, which is at a time when they go through particular rites of passage in an environment where they start to encounter alcohol," he said.
He praised the Healthy FE programme, created by the Department for Health but since adopted by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service. More than half of FE colleges are now on board with the scheme, which encourages providers to work with partner organisations to "create a learning environment where positive well-being is the expectation for all". But, with funding at a premium for colleges, its future is far from certain.
"One has to be more ingenious as to how one finds the resources at a time when the effects of alcohol consumption are growing in society," Mr Aleander said. "Colleges are going to have to work more cannily."
And, with the future health of their students at stake if they get it wrong, the pressure on them to deliver is greater than ever.
From the AoC report on teaching alcohol awareness in colleges:
"Alcohol awareness is, surprisingly often, wrapped up in the wider learning about substance misuse, whether these substances are either legal or illegal drugs.
"Without care, this menu may become a cafeteria-style selection from many unstructured choices. Of course, colleges are aware of this but, in a pressured environment, drugs-and-alcohol can become a single topic; the providers that have unpacked the issues here are able to demonstrate that there are several strands, with alcohol awareness deserving its own focus."