Can you stand the heat?

28th July 2006 at 01:00
Widen participation, says the Government. Bring in those who are hardest to reach. So now we have the long-term unemployed, the mentally ill, and the teenagers who can't be catered for in schools: people whose difficult life experiences would make them challenging to teach even if they wanted to be in college. Many of them do not. Is it any wonder that behaviour seems to be getting worse? And that's on top of the normal teenage hormonal upheavals.

So, item five on the staff meeting agenda is about managing challenging behaviour. We are given careful instructions on how to handle threatening situations, and a phone number to call if things turn really nasty. That's if you have a phone, and can get to it. We think this connects to the college flying squad, but none of us has ever called it, so we are not sure quite what happens if you do.

After the meeting, I make my way to a vocational skills class, where I am acting as support tutor, and it isn't long before I'm putting the advice to the test.

The students are waiting in the corridor for the lecturer to unlock the room, but we all have to wait outside a bit longer, because first she needs to call in two of the girls to give them a warning about bullying.

I am standing next to a young man who is usually cheerful and co-operative, but today is pale and glowering. He won't tell me what's wrong, but the others soon fill me in. He has been ditched by his girlfriend, who is on another course in a nearby classroom. A few minutes later she walks past, totally ignoring him. Soon obscenities are being hurled down the corridor, along with threats.

We are called into class, where the two girls who are accused of bullying sit with sulky expressions. The tutor takes the lad outside and calms him down. Only then can the lesson begin. We are discussing what rights and responsibilities you acquire when you turn 18. One of the things they come up with is that you can be sent to prison. The student next to me, who is way off 18, informs us that you can go to prison sooner than that. He claims he has already served a term in a young offenders' institution for "accidentally getting into a fight. It wasn't my fault. Anyway it was self-defence. It was nothin' really."

A stretch in a YOI for a lad barely into his teens doesn't sound as if it was nothing, but I decide not to pursue it because on the other side of the room, tension is rising again. The cuckolded lad has spotted his ex-girlfriend parading up and down the corridor on the arm of her new squeeze. The lecturer leaves the room to speak to her.

Meanwhile, the groups continue with their work. One minute all is well, but in the next, a fight is breaking out. One of the girls has been accused by her "best friend" of trying to copy her work. She seems on the verge of losing control, so I tell her to count to 10. "They told me that in anger management but it don't work. I never get past three," she gasps, between the flying insults. Her peers are moving the furniture, in eager preparation for the Big Fight.

With the lecturer out of the room, it's down to me. I haven't time to look up the emergency number and locate a phone so I take a drastic step: I raise my voice. The shock is enough to reduce the room to a momentary silence. The tutor returns and calls a break, during which she sorts out the fighters. By now, most of the teaching time has slipped away but she picks up the threads and stoically completes the lesson.

Just time to let them know that the loudest, most disruptive and sexually provocative student in the room has scored the highest marks in the exam.

When all but one of the students have left the room, the lecturer sorts out the last lingering girl, for whom next term's work placements will have to be adjusted because she is pregnant. And only then can she go off to report what must be reported and record what must be recorded about today's incidents.

In the corridors, pairs of young lovers are forming and reforming. The instigators of so much aggravation turn out to be the most unremarkable bunch of kids: short and fat, long and lanky, inarticulate or loud, dressed in clothes that are way too large or far too revealing. It's tough being a teenager. It's demanding to be in charge of teenagers, but we've got to the end of term and I still haven't had to ring that emergency phone number.

Let's just hope that by September, they will all have cooled down.

Gill Moore is a basic skills lecturer

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