First on your butt . . . giz a drag . . . stop hokeing, don’t put a horn on the butt . . . Jesus, Macker what a duck’s arse . . . sskketchhhh! Scramble late into Irish class gobbling mints.

Teenage smoking was a rite of passage. From straightening out your last Carrolls from the arse pocket after an hour in Maths to topping your fags after three drags, to perfecting that “ten Rot’mins”order at the local shop.

But did you know that on average teenage smokers spend just over a year less in school than non-smokers?

A recent paper published by a group of UCD economists in the Journal of Economic Surveys surveyed 60,000 individuals in Britain over the past 20 years. (They rightly assumed that what goes in Britain goes in Ireland. Our problem is that we don’t collect enough statistics.)

They divided the 16-year-olds into smokers and non-smokers, and found that the smokers did not value education as much as non-smokers. The data revealed a direct correlation between education and income: the longer you spend learning, the higher your long-term income.

The study suggests that kids who smoked at 16 spent less time later on in school, not because they hung out in the jacks, but because smoking at a young age revealed something about how they valued the future.

Knowing that smoking is bad for you in the long term did not prevent them from puffing away because the buzz from being Jack-the-lad today was much more important than the threat of emphysema at 50.

An interesting way to look at the difference between people in our society is to assess the different values people put on the future. In a country where many of the old descriptions of working class versus middle class versus underclass have blurred, where such terms as AB1s or C1 means very little, one of most crucial differences between people is whether they value the present or the future.

Education is the most stark area where valuing the here-and-now over the future can cost dearly. The longer you stay in education the more money you earn in the future.

Going to school can be regarded as investing. Those who invest get more back in the future, because they value the long term. The challenge for a society is: how do we teach all our kids to value the future so they have a fair chance of earning a crust later on?

The study by the UCD Institute for Social Change indicates that on average you earn 7 per cent to 9 per cent more for every year extra you spend in schooling in Ireland.This is a huge amount of cash when compounded for every year of work.

If you leave school at the Junior Cert, you are much more likely to be relatively poor in later life. Someone with a degree earns on average about 25 to 40 per cent more than someone who leaves school with the Leaving Certificate.

The problem for Ireland is that these differences are getting larger. As the economy moves up the `value chain’,uneducated workers fall behind quicker.

The most significant finding is that, while the return on investment in education is clear, it is most important for those most likely to leave school early.

Compared to their peers, teenagers from the Neilstowns and Jobstowns of west Dublin who stay in school for longer can expect to earn 16 per cent more per year of schooling than their mates who drop out.

Education is the key issue, and it is those kids who give education the two fingers at 14 who have the most to gain by staying on in class. So what can we do? We can pretend that some unconvincing `invisible hand’ will do the trick.

Some may think that it is quite acceptable that 28 per cent of Irish boys do not do their Leaving Cert. (This varies from area to area: for example, in Ballyfermot, 51 per cent of boys do not complete the Leaving Cert.)

This means we are condemning ourselves to a serious social problem in a few years’ time. If that is the figure today, what is going to happen to the kids of the children who leave school early now? They will leave early too, and we will have a stupid workforce.

Even from a self-interested perspective, stupid workers means lower wages, higher unemployment, more social disintegration, more taxes to pay for more gardai and social welfare, more inequality, more squalor and more frustrated dads beating up hopeless mams and more frightened, angry kids going to under-funded schools, hungry.

Alternatively,we can say “enough”.

We can conclude that it is in everyone’s interest for the vast majority of our kids to stay in school and mature into self-financing adults who can look after themselves. Evidence from countries that have bothered to find out shows that throwing money at schools (at the behest of teachers’ unions for example) does not help much.

But we could try the American approach, pioneered byJames Heckman the Nobel prize winner for economics, 2001. His work with disadvantaged groups – mainly black – in the US suggests that the state has to intervene very early with the parents to try to foster a culture of education.

How do you help a child whose dad left school at 15? You go and intervene in the family. It may sound heavyhanded, but it is crucial. You tell the kids that school is cool! Many educationalists now believe in community education like community policing. The school is placed at the centre of the community.

Teachers, together with community leaders, get the locals together to create incentives to make sure that kids go to school. Simple things like homework clubs, where kids can stay back after school in clubs to do homework, can work amazingly well.

Too often in new estates the school is an after thought. If the school is not at the centre of a community what is?
The goal here is to tell our children that leaving school at 14 is not cool or hard or right.The aim is to reinforce in parents that, without schooling, their children will suffer. It is crucial to instil typically middle-class educational values in the underclass.

I know there are many who will disagree with this statement and find it pejorative – but who cares? The world is changing; if you are not a smart worker you’re on a hiding to nothing.

And we have to stop pussyfooting around with ideological niceties like free third level education, when the evidence suggests that the first few years of schooling is the battleground. If we win the battle early, we will save ourselves from a self-perpetuating chain-smoking teenage underclass.

(The study is on