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How to hype up adult alarm with surveys of the young

A recent flurry of surveys purport to tell us about young people's attitudes and experiences but they instead result in yet more confusion Q and worse. A couple of months ago a Barnardo's survey led to the conclusion that young people are "tolerant, honest and committed". Last week, Exeter University put the fear of God into most law-abiding citizens, young and old, with its headline statistic, "knives, bats and chains are carried by almost a third of 14- and 15-year-old boys".

The Exeter survey had been commissioned by Channel 4's Dispatches programme, which had treated us to the spectacle of an unnamed school, shrouded in the submarine gloom of a handbagged video-camera. The school and its inhabitants came across as something akin to a Bosch depiction of hellfire and damnation, in marked contrast to the very polite and deferential (if slightly bored) class in an east London school, in the same programme, silently listening to a police officer telling them about offensive weapons. They looked as though they would have preferred to be involved in a maths or Latin lesson and certainly belied the programme's general message of youthful rudeness, aggression and violence.

Depicting young people as angels or devils, as innocent victims or anarchic aggressors is an adult problem. We dump much of our angst and confusion on the young. Thus, the issue of school security veers from protecting children in school from intruders and "adults connected with the school" (is this NUT-speak for parents?) to protecting teachers and the rest of us, no doubt, from rampaging children.

Our attitudes to young people are shaped by all these surveys, as well as by our direct experience of the young. It therefore behoves us to be careful and diligent before arriving at any kind of conclusion, because the resultant mental picture we carry around affects the way young people behave in their relationships with us and with each other.

The motivation of those who commission attitude surveys among the young has to be considered, as well as the methodologies used in constructing questions and interpreting responses. Some of the Keele University pupil survey data have been much quoted recently. Our database is probably the largest currently available; over 35,000 pupils' responses from more than 250 schools. It is true that in response to the statement "most of the teachers here are respected by the pupils", over half of the 11-year-olds agree, compared to less than 40 per cent of 15-year-olds. It is necessary, though, to examine more closely what pupils in different schools mean by "respect", especially as the data show that response variations between schools are much greater than variations according to pupils' gender or age, or whether the school is in an urban or rural setting.

Similarly, it is instructive to look at the Keele data alongside a smaller survey conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research in 1992 for the National Commission on Education, "What do students think about school?".

In the latter, the bald headlines selected by much of the media from the Keele data, "92 per cent pupils complain of pupils' disruption during their GCSE year" and, in the same Year 11, 16 per cent admitting to "playing truant", turns into a rather less dramatic 80 per cent believing they were "usually or always well-behaved" in the NFER study, with "truancy" from selected lessons being more significant than truancy from school.

Interestingly, there is also evidence that as pupils get older there is an increased sense of irritation with too much discipline based on "petty rules" and, in both surveys, a growing awareness that the skill and empathy of particular teachers make all the difference. The 15- and 16-year-olds' greater sense of discernment in such matters should be welcomed. So, too, should, their evaluation of more effective learning methods and teaching styles, as well as their views about the need for academic tutoring and better staff co-ordination in establishing coursework and homework deadlines.

Such information is grist to the mill in schools where continuous improvement, based on a regular review system, is accepted as integral to the school's daily life.

Indeed, it was such thinking that prevailed when the Keele surveys were started in 1990 by Tim Brighouse and colleagues Mike Johnson and Gerry Gough. They worked closely with schools and all believed strongly that keepingin touch with the perceptions of both pupils and parents would help schools decide why and where improvements were needed. Confident schools would - and do - welcome such enquiries and so do subject departments whose own priorities for improvement benefit from the availability of such information. Hence Keele's "mark two" survey, recently trialled in West Sussex secondary schools, focuses on pupil attitudes to different subjects.

Even better is the extra dimension added by small group discussions held with pupils, conducted by a skilled interviewer such as Jean Ruddock at Homerton College, Cambridge. Her observations and insights are invaluable, both as management information for schools to act on and as a means of increasing our understanding, as adults, of young people's hopes and fears and the way they conceptualise the world in which theyfind themselves.

Combining questionnaire data with the outcomes of more customised, sensitive probings from carefully constructed discussion can provide hugely illuminating intelligence about young people. But if the aim is to hype up adult alarm and despondency or to persuade undergraduates to embark upon a teaching career armed with a bullet-proof vest and a deep distrust of young people, then by all means combine, instead, a sensation-seeking television company with a questionnaire designed to excite and obfuscate, rather than clarify and support, best practice in school management.

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