Don't call them clever

10th November 2006 at 00:00
Julie Greenhough teaches English in a London secondary school

Recently I spent a few days in Cambridge, bastion of the educational elite.

Good job I didn't speak to any of them in case I inadvertently called them "clever". It might have damaged their self-esteem.

At the Professional Association of Teachers conference in the summer, a motion was passed that cleverness is no longer acceptable among children.

Clever, it seems, is cool no more. No doubt a politically correct alternative will arrive in the near future.

Last year, we were told not to refer to "failure" in education, and to replace it with "deferred success". I took maths O-level six times. Failed each time. There was no notion of success being "deferred".

There is an inherent tension in such labelling in an education system that endlessly tests pupils and measures by academic success. This is a contradiction in a society in which you clearly don't need a clutch of GCSEs to be a success. Role models such as David Beckham may be lacking in academic rigour but no amount of A* grades would enable us to do what he does on the field.

I know a very successful alpha male in a FTSE-100 firm who doesn't conform to official notions of cleverness, yet surpasses me in emotional intelligence and earning potential - someone I'll never emulate with my conventional qualifications.

The way teenagers are represented in the media today must confuse them. We have TV adverts to recruit in our profession that feature funny, honest children who are engaged, finding everything about learning brilliant.

"Work with the most thoughtful people in the world," goes the slogan. Yet we have moral panic about slipping standards that need to be bolstered by levels and league tables to protect society from a new breed of hooded delinquents. Boys are a particular concern, portrayed as angry, out of control and with the worst exam results. What will happen to our society when these boys grow up and become men? One can almost feel the collective shudder of fear.

Children today face unparalleled pressures as well as opportunities. Do we risk failing them? The Journal of Children's Services says Britain ranked 21st out of 25 EU member countries for children's well-being. They have worse stress levels and rates of crime and drugs misuse. We are allegedly more afraid of teenagers than any other European country, giving rise to what scientists call "paedophobia", an irrational fear of children. It is said that more than a million adults have considered moving home in order to avoid them.

Maybe this explains the Orwellian means by which we keep teens in check.

Police in Weston-super-Mare started using helicopters to shine super-bright halogen lights down which temporarily blind in an effort to move teenagers on. I don't know how that makes adolescents feel but it would certainly piss me off. But that pales in comparison to the anti-youth gadget used by North Somerset police: the "mosquito". It emits a noise with a range of more than 20 metres which is so high-pitched and piercing that young people cannot bear to remain within earshot. The mosquito will be installed in the Mead Vale shopping precinct in Worle. Such collective fear of our own youth. No wonder they feel stigmatised and alienated.

We should be talking to them, inspiring them, socialising with them.

Instead, we disperse, judge, label and reinforce their status as outsiders.

However we refer to the state of modern youth, just remember not to call them "clever" in your classroom.

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