How strange is the change from major to minor

10th December 2004 at 00:00
The discussion over The Protection of Children Act threw up the interesting statistic that the average age of learners in Scotland's FE colleges is nearly 30. Like most statistical averages, it's not very helpful. In fact, talking about averages in FE is always difficult - our fault for being flexible and versatile.

Learners come from a wide range of backgrounds and age groups. Because our courses are skills courses, your learner may be extremely well-qualified in another discipline or may have no qualifications - we can have PhDs and we can have beginners with no experience of further education in the same class. FE, however, is an adult environment and we treat all our learners as adults. When our "Day in The Life" programme brings third-year school pupils through our doors, it's pretty clear they are chuffed to be treated as adults and not schoolchildren.

At the other end of the scale, my Thursday group, who are all retired, relish being treated like youngsters. "Now children..." I will remonstrate to their delight if the noise level gets too high (and yes, this is one of my more unruly classes), and they will ask delightedly for homework. This week, one of my learners apologised for not doing her homework. She had been very busy and she was very, very sorry. In fact, she rarely does the homework, but she is 93 and has a very full social life. We never expect the homework to be completed anyway, but we both enjoy the little vignette, which is repeated every week without fail.

What you can't do, of course, is to treat your young learners like, well, youngsters. One group has been studying the furore around violent computer games, a subject that has seen them soaring through work and capturing assessments painlessly. They were preparing to debate the topic and one of the learners asked if he could bring in one of the games to show an extract and to make his point.

I hesitated. The rating on the game might well be 18. I knew that a few of the class could be under 18. While these mental calculations were going on, I immediately lost sight of the fact that they were my young adults and, like the scene in Father of the Bride, where the bride-to-be suddenly metamorphoses into an eight-year-old with pigtails piping "Daddy, I'm getting married", the whole class suddenly morphed into minors in shorts with skinned knees.

"How many of you children are under 18?" I heard myself ask. To make matters worse, once stuck in that groove I couldn't get out again and as well as "children" I heard myself utter more bad words such as "headmaster" and "playtime" and, worst of all, "mums and dads".

The class looked a little fazed but three or four hands reluctantly admitted to being children, including the young man who had offered to bring in the game. "You're going to write to my parents asking if I can see an extract of my game -the one they bought me?" he asked incredulously.

Too right, matey. We can treat everyone as an adult, but we have to remember many of them are minors. The letters went out and the debate went ahead.

After several weeks on the project it was interesting to note that, though all of them had felt at the beginning that any censorship or control of violent video games was stupid, nearly everyone had shifted their position and felt that more stringent controls were needed to stop these games falling into the hands of vulnerable young people. That's growing up for you, I suppose.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media at Dundee College.

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