22/07/2013 11:34 BST | Updated 21/09/2013 06:12 BST

A Right to a Universal Rite of Passage?

The end of the academic year is here and school leavers' prom problems have been a mainstay of media interest for the last few weeks. This relative newcomer to the UK social scene seems to have stolen a march on the old school disco. There's so much emotion and expectation, as well as money, now invested in it that, for many, the prom itself has graduated to become a rite of passage, marking their transition from childhood to adulthood.

If so, it's competing with a host of others. Which would you pick? Your first big night out with your friends, university or college graduation, moving out of your family home or getting your first job?

Our society sends out confusing messages about when young people become adults, what level of responsibility they should have for themselves and what role they can play. You can smoke, join the army, leave school (this school year anyway) and have sex at 16, drive at 17 but you have to wait until 18 to drink alcohol in a pub and vote. Then you hit 21 and that still retains some significance.

It's an issue that the Young Adult Trust, the precursor to this Government's National Citizen Service (NCS) programme, sought to address back in 2006. At its launch, David Cameron said: "over time why not see if we can develop a common reference point, a nationally recognised 'transition to adulthood'". The Government is now trying to roll that idea out through NCS, with a graduation ceremony for young people who successfully complete the two months and a certificate signed by the Prime Minister.

But why the need to create something when we've muddled along fine up to now? My experience is that this type of recognition of young people's achievements could form an important element of 'officially growing up' and that creating common, shared experiences that everyone can participate in is critical if we are to develop a society in which everyone feels they have a stake. Making that recognition related to something achieved, for example taking responsibility, stepping up and giving back to their communities, rather than an age reached, is much more powerful. It's an opportunity to show young people that their contribution is valued.

It's why I'm so proud of our annual graduation ceremonies at City Year. They celebrate a year's voluntary service in schools in deprived areas, given by 18-to-25-year-olds. City Year Graduation celebrates these young people's commitment and dedication to being near-peer role models, tutors and mentors to children who often don't have adults to look up to.

It's also a moment of reflection, a time to pause and see how far they have come. Abigail who graduates this week sums it up: "I recently looked back at a photo that was taken of me at the start of the year and now I think 'that is not me!'" She added: "I've achieved things that might not be something you can certify, like a degree, but internally I've been able to reach goals that I didn't think I could at this stage." Her City Year Graduation publically marks those goals.

At City Year we're inspired by these words of Nelson Mandela: "I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter. I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended."

Instead of constantly describing young people in terms of what they're not - for example in education, employment or training (NEET) - perhaps we should provide them with the right to a universal rite of passage which celebrates what they have already achieved and offers them all a moment to rest and steal a view before contemplating their adult journey to come.