The agonies of adolescence

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
Just when children face the horrors of puberty, schools force them into large classes and then lambaste them for not being adults.

Ted Wragg calls for change.

If I were a politician I would make adolescents top of my agenda. Not to behave like one, you understand, but to do something positive for them. If there is one age I am glad not to be at present it is 13. The middle years of secondary schooling are now the most problematic. The Essex University survey data (see pages 20-21) show pupils of this age becoming disaffected, with boys being less likely to recover.

But it is not just boys who suffer. There is the Year 8 "dip" when English and maths performance seems to lurch, once pupils have got over the excitement of joining a secondary school. This year's annual Chief Inspector of Schools' report from Mike Tomlinson reported that their behaviour also slumps.

There is nothing new about adolescence being aperiod of turmoil. Consider what is happening. Hands and feet grow to adult size first, a rotten trick to play on anyone, let alone someone sprouting new bits all over the place, so you drop things, trip over, and your clothes stretch. Your voice breaks, if you are a boy, making your mates howl with relieved mirth that it did not happen to them when you speak part soprano, part baritone.

A series of surveys produced by the Exeter Schools Health Education Unit show that adolescent girls fret endlessly about their body shape, convinced that perfectly normal physical development is a sign of fatness.

In the 19th century girls started their periods at 17, but had left school years earlier. They were still children when they commenced work. Today the age of menarche is nearer 12, sometimes earlier. In 2001 you become physically adult during key stage 3 of your education, well before you move into employment.

So what do we do to this tormented age group? Do we provide individual and small group tuition and support to see them through the turbulence, help develop their individuality, focus on their future?

Quite the reverse. We bury them under a uniform curriculum with 12 subjects, once citizenship is aboard; lambaste them for their dips and lurches; complain about their behaviour, lack of purpose, taste in fashion and music; speculate how many poisonous substances they have inhaled, injected or swallowed.

Why, damn it, can't they be just like we were: hard working, resourceful, ever-attentive, homework immaculate, date underlined twice with a ruler, no acne, able to tie reef knot properly and rustle up a nourishing stew from a pair of socks and a bay leaf?

One wise observer summed it up: "Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannise their teachers." I could not agree more. Good old Socrates puts his finger on it precisely. Standards have been falling steadily since the 5th century BC. Pass the hemlock.

In the fast-moving world of the 21st century, however, we must move well beyond the stage of hand wringing. Adolescence needs to go to the top of the political agenda, not be buried in obscurity near the bottom of it.

First, we need a coherent programme with clear pathways for 14 to 19-year-olds. There has always been talk of it, but apart from the interesting schemes devised for the Technical and Vocational Initiative in the 1980s, little real action. Kenneth Baker split it back into two separate chunks in the 1988 Education Act.

Accompanying this must be proper support for the 12 to 14 age group, before they get to the crucial 14 to 19 phase. They need to discover who they are, express themselves as individuals, travel, take part in some significant group project, work through their aspirations and hopes for the future.

Young adults, as they nowadays are, have no proper rite of passage in society, other than grasping the accoutrements offered by a seedy commercial world. In desperation they clutch at a fag, an alcopop, a CD, a mobile phone, an adult garb, a cool, laid-back lifestyle, anything to indicate the abandonment of childhood.

Their education, meanwhile, offers 12 subjects taught to groups of 33 or 34, often the largest classes in the secondary system. Schools should be staffed and resourced to give all these individuals advice and support, not just those who are flagging, to run projects and challenges that stretch the intellect and imagination.

Of course most will eventually recover at GCSE and beyond, but many do not and all could benefit from having the individual mentoring they need. I have seen what this age group can do at schools like Stantonbury in Milton Keynes, where a great deal of energy is poured into the performing arts.

Politicians must put adolescence top of the agenda, help schools support and challenge the million-plus pupils aged 12 to 14. Otherwise, as the latest evidence from Essex University suggests, these young adults are in danger of becoming first reviled and then lost.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University Briefing, 20-21

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