'Have faith in the youth of today'

13th November 2009 at 00:00

At odd moments during my 30 years of teaching I have asked myself a rather disturbing question: how is it that I've managed to be caught up in a system that is so clearly anti-youth? Then I realise that there is a kind of pattern connected to this awful thought. It usually happens around August, when the exam results are published.

This is when some newspapers reveal a shattering "truth". The reason why so many of our young people achieve great success in exams is nothing to do with better teaching, more relevant curriculum, engagement of parents, governors, student voice, higher motivation and raised aspirations. No, it is all down to the "fact" that exams have become easier. Teachers can only stand by and watch this cold, and base, attempt to snatch victory and glory from under the noses of the students they are so proud of. Heartless, yes, but even worse, so blatantly unjust.

Most secondary teachers reading this column will have invigilated in exam halls at some time in their lives. They will have looked at exam questions that are way beyond their own realm of skills and knowledge: questions that probe the intelligence of the students, requiring them to analyse, evaluate, synthesise - all higher order skills, regardless of subject. National exams have moved on a pace in my lifetime, far away from the days of merely reproducing knowledge.

But let's get down to the nitty gritty. The most uncomfortable aspect of this particular myth is the failure of some people to recognise the nature of intelligence. What generally goes along side the "dumbing down" theory is the almost pathological fear among some sections of the establishment that schools are producing a nation of young people who cannot spell or add-up. Those people really should know better.

Since the 1980s, psychologist Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences has had a profound effect on both the school curriculum and the way it is taught. There can be few teachers left today who believe that the sole mark of intelligence is defined by linguistic and mathematical ability.

The students in my school constantly surprise me with their level of understanding, their tenacity in thinking through problems, and their ability to work together towards solutions. It's true that we offer a curriculum, and set up our classrooms to encourage these qualities. But all we are doing is encouraging them to discover their potential.

Anyone who still thinks young people today are less intelligent than in the golden age (which was when exactly?) please come and visit my students, and marvel at their achievement. Not only are they highly skilled technically, they can multi-task in ways I can only dream of. It may be a cliche that if you have a problem with your mobile phone, video recorder, downloading photographs or music, ask a 12-year-old to help you, but you know it's true.

Slippage in standards? I don't think so. To rob our young people of their deserved glory on exam day may be cruel and vindictive. But, in the long run, why should we worry? Our young people are far too intelligent to let a few politicians and journalists from the reactionary press stop them in their tracks. They're already bound for careers and professions that will leave the ill-wishing curmudgeons stranded in the past. Have faith in the bright, developing youth of today. I have.

Lindy Barclay, Deputy head, Redbridge Community School, Southampton.

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