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Roots of disaffection

A country gets not only the government but the children it deserves, according to some detached observers of the human race. Our articles on increased drug-taking among schoolchildren (page 1) and adolescent disaffection (page 6) may therefore cause even those who are purring over the general election result to wonder exactly how much there is to celebrate.

Teenage angst and anomie are not, of course, unique to the Britain of 1997. Newspapers have carried "Blackboard jungle" headlines for 40 years, mods and rockers took their disaffection to the seaside in the 1960s, and it is almost 20 years since punk groups vomited over their pill-popping audiences. Furthermore, almost every Western country shares some, if not all, of our youth problems.

The roots of disaffection are varied and they go very deep. A 1995 study by Professor Sir Michael Rutter confirmed this but hesitated to say which factors were most significant. The increasing isolation of teenagers and the growth in family discord were, however, two important elements, he said.

Even so, that does not mean that schools are absolved from blame or unable to help. The previous Government recognised this in its 1992 White Paper, Choice and Diversity, and provided Grants for Education Support and Training cash to combat indiscipline and truancy. Schools also acknowledge their responsibility and have tried everything from hamburgers (for good attendance) to harangues (for non-attendance). The hamburger tendency have also issued praise postcards and commendatory stickers. And the haranguers have experimented with isolation units and surveillance gadgetry or, like Lewisham, have adopted a "Rottweiler approach" to truancy. But, of course, most secondary schools and LEAs employ both strategies. Equally, schools have taken the drug problem seriously. But research by the Trust for the Study of Adolescence concluded that too many drug-education classes are offered to pupils too late and are taken by teachers who know less about the subject than some pupils do.

The anti-disaffection initiatives appear to be less naive than the drug programmes. Nevertheless, it is clear that they should more often be aimed at primary pupils. No school should go far wrong by following the three broad strategies advocated by the National Foundation for Educational Research: maintaining and monitoring attendance; supporting emotional and behavioural needs and offering alternative learning environments or curricula. But these can be little more than palliatives unless the new Government combats the twin scourges of youth unemployment and child poverty.

There is at least one reason to be optimistic, however. The renewed emphasis on early-years literacy and numeracy should result in fewer children being damaged by a poor start to school. If it is sustained and followed through, this should ultimately mean that there will be fewer disaffected teenagers with chronically low self-esteem and fewer remand prisoners with a reading age of 10. As youth crime costs the nation an estimated Pounds 7 billion a year this particular educational strategy must be the most constructive way to reap financial, as well as human, rewards.

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