A generation speaks

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Young people think they learn only to work and they don't want to go to France, writes Geoff Brookes

In June I marked 500 examination papers from across the country. English GCSE papers, foundation level. One of the questions asked: "What sort of skills do you think should school leavers possess?"

A greater insight into the priorities of our young people you could not hope to find. Sadly, you can dismiss ideas about personal growth or an opening of the doors of perception. As far as they were concerned education is only about preparation for the workplace. The CBI should be delighted.

Poetry and drama are the first to be rejected. Anything in maths which is not arithmetic is regarded as having the relevance of Sanskrit. Then they turn on foreign languages, like little Englanders: "I am never going to France, and in Spain they all speak English."

It was all so sad - closed minds, seeing no need to reflect upon their lives or upon the diet they are fed as consumers.

It was sad, too, to read comments like: "I am good at art but it's not going to do me any good."

It is depressing that at 16 they are so concerned with employment, and worried that the things they enjoy must be, inevitably, unimportant.

After the annual assault upon the standards possessed by school leavers, it is perhaps no surprise that they are worried they will not fit the bill.

Education is nothing more than the acquisition of simple skills. I loved:

"School has been good because it has shown me how to put someone in the recovery position."

Presumably a teacher at the end of a difficult lesson.

In the end, all school should do is teach students a trade: "There is money to be made in plumbing." Those of us who have ever needed to employ one know this to be true.

"Teach me to be an electrician and I would have behaved in school," is something that will set up a seductive resonance in those with influence.

My own, perhaps limited, experience is that teach naughty boys bricklaying and they are still naughty boys - just with new things to throw at each other.

There is an emerging belief that financial training is essential: "You need to know how to deal with loans and to manage your debts." The disturbing thing is that such problems are seen to be inescapable.

The opportunity that school offers students to be more thoughtful was not really valued. Any reflection upon the range of emotions that sweep through us all is seen as unnecessary. What sort of effect this will have upon their emotional health, and upon their ability to build and sustain relationships, cannot be predicted. But only work matters. It reflects their desire to enter the adult world. They see learning as belonging to childhood.

There are lessons here for me as a teacher. I must acknowledge these aspirations. But it also confirms that there are other, more important elements that they must explore, whether they like it or not. They might think that the poetry we do is a meaningless exercise in code-breaking, but I know differently and I shall continue to do it. Even car mechanics stop and think sometimes.

In other ways their views were decidedly old-fashioned. Across the country it is clear that the most important attribute anyone can have is respect.

You need to respect others and they should respect you. In this way we eradicate all ills.

It is a simple idea but it does not stop it being a powerful one. Respect is a word that speaks of tolerance and racial integration. Whether it is something they always put into practice is not clear, but the belief is strong and it is encouraging.

They believe in manners. There is never any reason not to be polite - an attribute that is important for those who are going to work in call centres. They see themselves as "a mature, sophisticated generation", but they are not sure about their successors. They believe in control and order, but when they look back at younger students, they despair at their lack of discipline. Have we heard this before somewhere?

Certainly, they would permanently exclude everyone for every possible misdemeanour. They also believe that crime must lead to punishment. There was not always a sense of forgiveness. But their apparent irritation at those who distract others from their work through poor classroom behaviour was reassuring.

Simple views they are, expressed under examination conditions. But I have been fortunate enough to listen to the authentic voice of a generation. It is a generation that has its own, strong views and it is one that all us have helped shape, for better and worse.

Perhaps we do need to think about our practice in the light of what they say. But in other ways it confirms our priorities. Just because what we do is not popular, it does not mean that it is wrong.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed secondary school, Swansea

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