Rebellion? No thanks, we've got homework

Drinking, smoking and getting up to no good are so pass – teens today are more likely to knuckle down and plan ahead. What happened to the wild days of youth? asks Adi Bloom
6th March 2015, 12:00am


Rebellion? No thanks, we've got homework

It was a Saturday night. Emily was at a friend's house for an 18th birthday party. There were 15 of them there and at some point someone suggested playing a drinking game. Drinks were poured; drinks were drunk. More drinks were poured.

Then something occurred to Emily. "I remember thinking, I don't want to drink too much," she says. "Because I don't want to be hungover on Sunday. I have homework to do."

The role of the young used to be to challenge the old. It was to question the status quo, to roll their eyes at the squares, to resist the system. At some point, however, all that changed. Today's youth are more likely to spend their time doing homework and applying for work experience than they are to be turning on, tuning in and dropping out.

This winter, a longitudinal study of more than 13,000 pupils in England, conducted by academics at the Department for Education, found that teenagers are better behaved than ever before. Despite tabloid headlines condemning the Asbo generation, teenagers are increasingly likely to follow the rules: 76 per cent of the 13- and 14-year-olds questioned had never broken the law. By far the most common law-breaking activity among the recalcitrant few was fighting without the use of weapons. And Ministry of Justice figures show that, in 2013, 28,000 schoolchildren aged 10-17 in England and Wales were convicted or given a police caution for a first offence. By contrast, the figure in 2007 was 111,000.

"I think it comes down to the fact that everything these days is so pressured," says Juliet Smith, who is Emily's English teacher at a comprehensive school in the North of England. "You've got to get Cs in your GCSEs. You've got to get good A-levels. You've got to get into university. Otherwise you seriously ruin your life chances."

But the lack of rebellion is not simply about working harder and wanting to do well. Even the group of smokers behind the bike sheds is gradually dwindling. According to the DfE study, less than 16 per cent of teenagers have tried smoking, and 80 per cent of the defiant smokers have since given up. Only 32 per cent of 13- and 14-year-olds have tried alcohol: a significant drop since a 2004 survey, which found that 55 per cent of Year 9 pupils drank. And only 4 per cent of the teenagers questioned have tried cannabis.

Meanwhile, the rate of teenage pregnancies is at a 45-year low, according to the Office for National Statistics.

"There aren't really any smokers in school any more," says Georgia Neale, an English teacher in Sussex. "We've actually got more kids who smoke electronic cigarettes than normal cigarettes. They haven't even tried normal cigarettes.

"And you just don't see underage pregnancy at all. I've never seen a girl pregnant at a school I've worked at. That's a big change since I was at school. Obviously, kids have parties and go drinking. But that's just standard teenage growing up."

Seventeen-year-old Emily agrees. She was not the only one at the birthday party to be thinking about the morning after: the whole gathering was fairly sedate. "There were no drugs, and I think two people were smoking," she says. "I did get quite drunk. But no one was sick; no one was paralytic. We were just more social."

"I think they realise that rebellion has consequences," says Smith. "Drinking, drug-taking, smoking: the consequences of all of those things are very well-documented. If you know that drinking too much and getting behind the wheel of a car is likely to end with you dead or severely injured, then you just don't do it. Teenagers are much more responsible than we maybe give them credit for."

Ain't misbehavin'

But something else is also going on here. Rebelling against the rules of one's elders used to be a teenage rite of passage. It was the defining point of teenage existence: I ignore their rules, therefore I am. Today's teenagers, however, seem increasingly happy to follow rules, whether in school or out.

The number of permanent exclusions from school has fallen considerably in recent years. In 2006-07, the rate of permanent exclusions was 12 per 10,000 pupils in England. By 2012-13, the most recent period for which figures are available, this had decreased to six exclusions per 10,000 pupils. The number of fixed-term exclusions similarly dropped, from 566 per 10,000 pupils in 2006-07 to 35 exclusions per 10,000 pupils in 2012-13.

Challenged to think of rebellious acts among her sixth-form students, Smith has to stop and think. "One of the rules here is that sixth-formers have to wear their lanyards all the time and they all hate them," she says. "But the vast majority of them do and that's something they could easily rebel against." She pauses for a while longer. "Most of the students rebel by not handing in their homework on time, or walking the wrong way down the corridor."

Emily readily admits that she is more rebellious than some of her friends. She does, however, immediately qualify this: "I don't actually break rules as kind of a middle finger to the school. I'm probably more lazy than anything. I just had a free period and I sewed a button on a shirt I'd just bought rather than doing my coursework. That's probably as rebellious as I get."

James Williams, a lecturer in education at the University of Sussex, believes this lack of rebelliousness is not simply about an increased need to do well in exams. "Could it be that children today are getting that buzz from other media?" he says. "Maybe computer games are giving them what they need. For us, it was board games, card games. Maybe you got your buzz out of sports. But where else would you get it?"

And, he adds, it is not just virtual reality that gives teenagers a drug-free high. "Children these days travel more," he says. "I rarely went out of Wales until I was 17, 18. Today, children are less insular. They go on foreign holidays. They do all sorts of things that were just dreams of previous generations, but are normal for them. Maybe previous generations needed to take something artificial to get that feeling.

"Their personal aspirations are much less bounded by society than they once were. They feel that, if they want to do something and they work hard, then maybe they can. Aspirations are far, far better for children now - perhaps leading to the less rebellious youth of today."

However, it is not just experience and aspiration that are stifling the desire to rebel. When Emily talks about sewing a button on a new shirt instead of doing her coursework, she does so in front of Smith, her teacher. ("That's my coursework she's talking about," says Smith, drily.) And, as Smith talks about the lack of sixth-form lanyard rebellion, a pupil interrupts her to point out a classmate proudly wearing someone else's lanyard.

This kind of openness, James Williams says, represents a significant shift. "In my day, children were told to be seen and not heard," he says. "I think children are much more heard today. Think of pupil voice and pupil councils. It would have been unheard of in my day to have a school council: `What, you mean a group of children telling teachers what to do? I don't think so.'

"We're giving children more power. Perhaps that's why there's less violent rebellion against society: there's less frustration at their voice not being heard."

This comes as no surprise to Jon King, an English teacher in East Anglia. "My headteacher sometimes talks about subverting the subversiveness," he says. His school includes some pupils he describes as "Bill Gates wannabes", who wanted to hack into the school network. The school instead asked them to hack into the system deliberately, in order to expose any potential weaknesses. "They're now working for the school, really," he says.

Smith agrees that rules are strengthened by the rule-makers' willingness to listen to feedback. "Kids in school these days have a say about absolutely everything," she says. "I think that makes a big difference. Oh, you can rebel against the uniform - but you chose it. You can rebel against the one-way rule in school corridors, but you were the ones who agreed that it was helpful for safety."

And pupil voice often resonates as loudly outside the school gates as within. Children, as much as adult consumers, are harnessing the power of Facebook and Twitter to their own advantage. "Now a 10-year-old child can write to a multinational store and say, `Why have you done this? I'm quite insulted,' " Williams says. "It's not a violent rebellion; it's a digital rebellion. But the child has changed how a store markets its product, packages its product, sells its product. Children now are getting much more power, because of open access to digital media and social media."

And, he adds, today's teenagers have the indolence-inducing advantage of instant gratification. Where Williams and his contemporaries would have to wait for a new record to be released and then go to a shop and buy it, modern schoolchildren can access music - often leaked well in advance of its official release date - at the click of a button.

"Today, it's a different sort of rebellion. It's an armchair rebellion, a rebellion of the haves and the have-nots," Williams says. "They don't want to be the have-nots. Silent rebellion is often a very powerful thing."

Silence, however, can mask other things, too. Figures published at the end of last year revealed that, in England, admission to hospital for self-harm has risen 93 per cent among girls in the past five years and 45 per cent among boys. But it's difficult to know whether this represents an actual increase in the number of cases or simply an increased awareness of the behaviour. As a counterpoint, suicide rates among the young are dropping across the Western world.

Seen and heard

John Coleman, an Oxford University academic who has written extensively on teenagers and adolescence, believes that young people's voices are being listened to in ways they have not been before. "Definitely part of it is recognising mental health issues and offering counselling in schools," he says. "There are very few schools that don't have any counselling services. That simply didn't happen 30 years ago."

This is not, however, to say that rebellion has vanished completely. When Jon King's school abandoned tutor groups in favour of cross-school houses, some older pupils staged a walkout in protest. "They stood at the top of the fields until it got too cold and then they came back in again," King says. "I think there were some punishments dished out."

Michael Lavalette, too, questions whether the current generation really has eschewed rebellion altogether. A professor in social work at Liverpool Hope University, Lavalette is currently working on a book about the history of school protests. He was surprised to find that there were actually quite a number of school strikes, or walkouts, in 2014. For example, Brighton pupils walked out of school in protest against planned changes to the school day and term.

In another school, pupils went on strike after being told that an armband, worn in support of an ill classmate, was a breach of school uniform. "Often, schools don't like to call them strikes," Lavalette says. "They call them truancy, so they disappear."

He points out that, from the dockers' strikes in 1889 through to the miners' strikes in 1985 and the protests over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, adult protest has always peaked at the same time as pupil action. "Children aren't separate from adults," he says. "More generalised school strikes happen around more generalised movements. They learn from their parents' struggles. At the height of social protest, it suddenly spreads - to farmers, to women working in the home, to school students. Suddenly, everyone feels that they can change the world. So I'm not surprised that there's less activity in schools, because there's less activity generally."

The outsiders

Possibly, however, teenagers' forms of rebellion have just changed. Rather than tuning in and dropping out, today's teenagers are simply tuning out.

"Nowadays, there's a lot of pressure on the very high-achieving kids to do very well," says Georgia Neale. "Do your best, get the best grades, get into the best college, go into the best jobs. There's pressure to be amazing. And the bottom kids? Well, you're going to get a D. So don't bother."

The problem, she says, is that pupils are told in advance what their target grades are. Those aiming for a D at GCSE know that it equates to a failure: there are rumours that even a job at McDonald's requires C grades in maths and English.

"And that's when the rebellion kicks in," Neale says. "They just think they're not going to do anything in their life. So they go off the boil, really.

"They switch off completely. They'll be in school but everything will be a switch-off: uniform infringement, no homework, sitting at the back. Some even verbalise it: `I'm a D grade, so why should I even bother?' No matter how singing and dancing I make the lessons, as soon as I turn my back to talk to another kid, they'll switch off. It's kind of a forced rebellion: if society won't have me, then I'm out, anyway."

This hints at another key factor in the changing nature of school rebellion. There is an increasing realisation, at least among those who work with teenagers, that they are as capable of rational thought as any adult. The decline in the number of school smokers, therefore, could be because the dangers of smoking are now widely recognised, among every generation. Similarly, a decline in the teenage-pregnancy rate does not mean that fewer teenagers are having sex, simply that they are better educated about safe sex.

"People like to portray teenagers as mad, bad and dangerous to know," says Juliet Smith. "But I don't think most of them are. It's a lazy clich: `I worry about walking past groups of teenagers on corners.' But why? They're just small adults. Or grown-up children. Most kids are good."

And, as Emily points out, they are capable of making sensible decisions. She acknowledges that she probably ought not to watch Broadchurch on a Monday night instead of doing her homework. But, she adds, hers is a severely circumscribed rebellion.

"I wouldn't break rules," she says. "That's just my own personal morality. I don't want to be naughty. I don't want to break the rules. I don't like getting into trouble."

Rebel, rebel, where did you go?

76 per cent of 13- and 14-yearolds have never broken the law

Permanent exclusions fell from 12 per 10,000 pupils in 2006-7 to 6 per 10,000 in 2012-13

Less than 16 per cent of 13- and 14-year-olds have smoked

Fixed-term exclusions fell from 566 per 10,000 students in 2006-7 to 35 per 10,000 in 2012-13

Just 32 per cent of 13- and 14-year-olds have tried alcohol, compared with 55 per cent in 2004

Only 4 per cent of 13- and 14-year-olds have tried cannabis

Sources: Permanent and fixed-period exclusions in England: 2012 to 2013, Department for Education, bit.lyExclusionData; Longitudinal study of young people in England, Department for Education, 2014, bit.lySensibleTeenagers

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