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Is 'adultness' test the way to go?

Too many young people are not in education or training. Answer? Raise the school leaving age to 18. There's a problem with teenage drinking. Answer? Raise the age at which you can buy alcohol at off-licences to 21. The age at which parents struggle to discipline their children is getting younger. Answer? It's the permissive parents' fault. There is a growing problem with young people behaving badly in school. Answer? Train teachers to manage behaviour more effectively.

In his book The Case Against Adolescence, the American psychologist Robert Epstein points out that, for most of human history, young people worked side by side with adults as soon as they were able. In the Western world, he says, we "infantalise" young people and have "artificially extended childhood" by treating teenagers like children, subjecting them to many more restrictions than adults.

We deny teenagers autonomy when they badly want to become productive and independent - and when they are actually very capable thinkers and decision-makers.

Teens may be behaving badly because we treat them like children. We see them as inferior or helpless. Just about everything we do tells them they are incompetent. We protect them from danger. We don't trust them to work or earn money. We force them to go to school. We refer to them as boys and girls instead of young people, pupils not students.

The point is that we deprive teenagers of the very thing that brings out the best in us, responsibility. It's a powerful motivator. It makes us push ourselves harder, perform better and care more. As Epstein puts it: "Without responsibility, people can turn to jelly." A telling phrase, and it applies to teachers too.

The idea that to take real responsibility teenagers need to be given more autonomy presents teachers and schools with a difficulty. Teachers often express their frustration with students who won't take responsibility for their own learning, and can't be trusted to take responsibility for their own behaviour. You often hear that the trouble nowadays is that pupils are all too well aware of their rights but forget their responsibilities.

Epstein recognises that not all teens are capable of taking on the responsibilities and handling the authority which adults have. Indeed, he argues they should have less, not more, freedom. He thinks they have too much freedom as it is. To give them responsibility without consequences is reckless.

The key point is that giving and taking "real" responsibility in schools is difficult. If you give responsibility without autonomy, it is meaningless. To say to students "you are responsible for getting your homework done, but have it in by Friday or you will be in trouble" leads to frustration and conflict, but it is difficult for teachers to say "if it's not in by Friday it won't be marked", as it is the teacher and the school who have to face the consequences if students don't do their homework and fail their exams.

And that's why students find it easy to opt out of taking responsibility for their own learning, because it's the teachers' and the school's job to "get them through" exams.

What's the way out of this catch-22? Maybe secondary schools need to be more like colleges and universities, able to teach young people to handle real responsibility by giving it to them in bigger doses than they do now.

We might not want to go where Epstein suggests, however. He argues if young people can prove that they are capable of passing a test of their "adultness", no matter their age, they should no longer be forced to go to school and, when they are in school, teachers should lose the right of "in loco parentis" over them. In other words, they would not be called students, they would be students.

That's a test they'd be queuing up to sit. Or would they?

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited

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