The end of one era and start of another is worth celebrating - and that’s exactly what an estimated 70,000 Aussie school-leavers will be doing over the next four weeks.

They’ve survived 13 years of lessons, homework and teachers’ rules. They’ve endured an intense period of examinations and assessment. Now it’s time to party at the biggest party of them all - Schoolies. 

PICTURE: Courtesy SU Queensland

"I think a lot of them just don’t find the whole Schoolies thing very enticing. It’s a pretty thin facade of a 'good time' and there are a lot of school-leavers who are smart enough to not buy into it."

- Nathaniel Brown, The Salvation Army’s youth missions coordinator for New South Wales, Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory.

Schoolies has become an Aussie rite of passage since it started on the Gold Coast in the Seventies. Over the past four decades, the concept has expanded into week-long parties at the iconic Queensland tourist hot spot, as well as numerous other holiday destinations around the country. 

Indeed, many students book in their Schoolies accommodation before they even open their first Year 12 text book; the official Schoolies website started advertising accommodation packages for 2012 Schoolies long before this year’s Year 12 students started their exams.

The most enduring Schoolies tradition is supposedly the ‘plunge of freedom’ - the first run down the beach into the ocean after school is over forever. If you take note of media reports, however, the most prevalent tradition seems to be alcohol consumption.

On 29th November, 2010, The Gold Coast News reported 145 schoolies being arrested during the first week of celebrations last year, with 571 liquor infringement notices for drinking in a public place. But not everyone sees this type of partying as a rite of passage into adulthood. 

Nathaniel Brown, The Salvation Army’s youth missions coordinator for New South Wales, Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory, says some teenagers decide to spend their money and time differently to mark the end of their secondary education.

"We’ve got quite a few school-leavers choosing to spend three weeks serving around the world rather than wasting their money at Schoolies," he observes.

"I think a lot of them just don’t find the whole Schoolies thing very enticing. It’s a pretty thin facade of a 'good time' and there are a lot of school-leavers who are smart enough to not buy into it."

The Salvos hold two trips in early January to Fiji and Kenya, where young people combine fun and friendship with helping out at local Salvo corps (churches) with basic renovations such as painting, holiday programs for children and sharing their faith with local communities, churches, and youth groups.

Captain Rowan Castle, who heads up Salvo youth programs in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Northern Territory and Tasmania, believes it’s important to offer young people an alternative to the traditional Schoolies celebration.

"This generation is hungry for experiences," he says. "We need to engage our youth in experiences that ground their young adulthood in the realities of this world and their contribution to it, rather than the values of an event such as Schoolies."

Philip Wyndham, of World Youth Adventures, promotes its Schoolies events as: "Real world experiences without the hangover". 

"The end of high school is a memorable achievement, but for those who dread the idea of joining the mainstream, chaos-filled celebrations, there aren’t many alternative options," he says.

The company saw the gap in the market, and offers three overseas adventures - to Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as one of Australia’s classic bushwalks, the Overland Track in Tasmania.

"These trips are for students who value the travel experience and appreciate that, for the same financial outlay for two weeks in Surfers, they can travel to Nepal or Thailand where one could argue they would learn and experience so much more," Wyndham says.

"We don’t expect our schoolies events to ever rival the numbers of the typical destinations, however we do know there’s a change in the air! Parents, as well as students, are looking for different experiences that are affordable, interesting and safe - and that will provide memories of the type they’ll want to remember."

Likewise, Hopebuilders International identified a need to offer school-leavers something more adventurous and meaningful than a beach booze-up.

"Young people like the idea of doing something bigger than themselves. They have a sense of adventure and a passion to do something that leaves a legacy and has the potential to change them."

- Hopebuilders board member Andrew Boonstra

The not-for-profit Christian group supports communities in Uganda, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and India by providing homes and programs for orphans, widows and others caught in the poverty cycle. 

Hopebuilders board member Andrew Boonstra says this year the organisation will run its first "Schoolies revolution", a three-week trip to the Village of Hope in Uganda. While there, the 22 teenagers who’ve signed up will help build a house for orphans, run programs with school children and be involved with the local community.

"This is a challenge for them to step out of their comfort zone and do something radical - to give back to world’s poor," Boonstra says.

Hopebuilders approached three Christian schools to float the idea last year; the response was so good, they have already held information sessions for 2012’s ‘Schoolies revolution’, with 36 teens expressing interest.

"Young people like the idea of doing something bigger than themselves. They have a sense of adventure and a passion to do something that leaves a legacy and has the potential to change them," he says.

Interdenominational Christian organisation Scripture Union Queensland is a pioneer in Schoolies events, holding them for around 25 years. Programs development officer Andrew Beavers says their aim is to provide an environment for school-leavers to celebrate the end of school in a drug-and alcohol-free environment, and to challenge and encourage them in their Christian faith.

SU’s events include cruising the Whitsundays in yachts while taking part in activities such as jet boating, surfing, snorkelling; surfing and body boarding in Samoa, or a getting together on the Sunshine Coast with 280 other school-leavers for the ultimate beach holiday and the opportunity to hear a Christian speaker as part of an evening program.

"Our registrations this year have increased by about 25 per cent overall. Our Whitsundays event fills six to nine months before it starts," Beavers says.

"All our schoolies provide very positive feedback about their Schoolies week - not only great fun, but challenging for their faith. Many reflect that the leaders they met have an impact on them long after the event."

The Salvation Army's Brown notes that choosing a different path from the typical Schoolies week to be their ‘rite of passage’ into adulthood can be a life-changing experience for young people.

"They learn to appreciate other cultures as well as their own. Young people who expose themselves to a global view get a better understanding of the world, its beauty and its challenges," he says.

"They touch and taste some of the injustices that exist around the globe, but they also learn that it’s pretty easy to make a difference in someone’s world.

"It’s pretty hard to not be changed by what they’ve seen and experienced; it affects their faith, priorities and decisions."

This article was first published in the 12th November issue of the Salvation Army publication, Warcry.