More than 300 years ago, the gentleman scholar Robert Russel, deeply despairing of the bands of youth roving the streets of London, wrote: "I find by sad experience how the towns and streets are filled with lewd wicked children [who] curse and swear and call one another nicknames."
More recently, in 1971, the poet Philip Larkin wrote: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad.They may not mean to, but they do."
Somewhere between these two lamentations, we find a tissue of questions that have yet to be satisfactorily answered despite centuries of consternation: what's wrong with young people? And why are they so different?
Citing their words, raw and (mostly) unedited, former TES columnist Chloe Combi's Generation Z: their voices, their lives comes closer than many attempts to offering answers. Presented as a collection of transcripts grouped by themes including crime and technology, the book follows former teacher Combi on a journey around Britain, visiting schools, group homes, prisons and youth clubs to record the authentic voice of youth. After providing context (Rocky is in a wheelchair, Marianne is a victim of rape), she lets each contributor hold forth, interjecting only to draw more out of particular statements.
Over nearly 300 pages, we're led through a series of vignettes. Individually, their directness and honesty is moving. When viewed as a whole, a number of threads emerge: broken homes, social media, bullying. A major theme is economic inequality, with young people at both extremes of the income divide offering thoughts on the challenges that define their lives.
The book gives educators much to consider. Yes, there are young people who talk positively about the opportunities that their education gives them, but they are mostly from independent schools. Otherwise, schools are described less positively; one individual depicts them as "concrete things with fences like you see in prison films".
That said, it is striking how many interviewees talk about how their relationship with their school affected them at times of crisis, for good or bad. This contradiction between the experience of school and its value in young people's lives raises questions in light of reports in TES of the education system becoming a "miniature welfare state" (bit.lyMiniWelfareState).
The greatest value of Generation Z is a reminder of all that we love about our students - their humanity, their kindness, their moments of strength, their insights. It's easy to see the echoes of students in our own classrooms; beyond the disrupters, preeners and attention-seekers, there are human beings going through tremendous changes. I found it a refreshing, confronting and heartfelt reminder of why I came into the classroom.
Chloe Combi's Generation Z: their voices, their lives is published by Hutchinson and priced at pound;18.99. Mike Stuchbery teaches history, geography and PSHE at East Point Academy in Lowestoft, Suffolk