Fearing children stops them growing up

A SORRY tale I keep hearing from teachers is that they would never intervene to stop unacceptable behaviour by children out of school unless they knew them.

It seems that children won't behave unless they know the person who is telling them off. You can hear their indignation: "Who are you to tell me what to do? You're not my dad, mum, teacher ."

Knowing pupils' names has always been important. It is a sign that you treated them as individuals. But what we have now is a new situation.

Unless we know the children, we go around being scared of them.

Many FE colleges are running training courses to enable staff to cope with 14- to 16-year-olds, as if they needed special treatment. They are, after all, "the buggers" in that awful series of books for teachers.

The argument for having school pupils in FE colleges was that they would respond well to the adult atmosphere, but we won't be able to use it anymore.

The key to the adult atmosphere - and what all the recent discussions about raising the school-leaving age to 18 ignore - is that FE and post-compulsory education is, fundamentally, voluntary. You go to college or on a course because you want to be there.

Although there are exceptions, going to college is still a matter of individual choice. It means you are, to that extent, acting like an adult.

Raise the leaving age to 18 and you take away the essence of FE. You are saying to young people, "Remain a child." But this is more than just another example of the infantilisation of the young. Raising the school-leaving age will also undermine FE as we know it.

The 14-19 educational policy churn may well lead to the dissolution of FE and its absorption into the school system. Already FE is turning into a part of the system.

There is a lesson to be learned from schoolteachers, but we don't want to put "Getting the Buggers into FE" in the best-selling lists, even though it is only a matter of time before someone writes it, along with "Getting the Buggers into University". That lesson is to reject the demeaning approach that hides both teachers' fear of teenagers and their own lack of confidence.

In a classroom, there are no adults and no "buggers" who need controlling.

There are teachers and students. In that relationship there is the basis for authority. Teachers have knowledge and skills; whether students like them or not, teachers have something they haven't.

Outside the classroom, adults still have something to offer anonymous children: that is, quite simply, knowledge of how to behave like a grown-up.

Unlike many adults, I am an intervener. I know that intervening doesn't always work but if it doesn't, I don't lose sleep over it.

Inside and outside the classroom, it is time to stop thinking of teenagers as "buggers" and to treat them as what they are: young people who can and want to grow up.

If FE teachers lose the sense of themselves as authoritative and knowledgeable adults, the obsession with behaviour will spread and a new motto will be needed: "14-19: Be afraid. Be very afraid."

Dennis Hayes is the head of the centre for professional learning at Canterbury Christ Church University

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