Let underdogs stay toothless

11th March 2005 at 00:00
I have been working with some particularly "challenging" Year 9 pupils.

Part of the so-called challenge is coping with their anger, for a number seem to soar into a towering rage over the slightest issue. The minute their intergalactic, full-colour, quadraphonic, all-singing, all-dancing, tea-making mobile phone dares to stutter, off they fume.

School records show how tough they can be to deal with. Telling the head to do something unspeakable in a direction away from the speaker is the minimum badge of honour. In their case, being excluded is the norm, not the exception. But it is the raw anger that makes life hard for schools. It bubbles and then boils, or simply erupts without warning. Who do they think they are, fulminating at everything? Teachers?

All of which makes me glad I am not a teenager. Adolescence really is a spooky time in people's lives. You grow several inches in a single year, hands and feet first, so you drop things and trip over these newly enlarged lumps at the end of your legs. It is a rotten trick to play on anybody, let alone the supremely self-conscious. Your clothes no longer fit. If you are a girl, you develop curves and are convinced you will become a fat lump, even though you are normal. If you are a boy, your voice breaks, so you speak alternately in a baritone or a falsetto, to the vast amusement of your mates.

As incomprehensible hormones jiggle around your body, some silly bugger tries to make you learn about the industrial revolution, study electricity, wrestle with algebra, when all you want to do is text your mates or ogle someone you fancy across the room.

I ask them what they see themselves doing in 10 years' time, when they are 24, and most do not want to think beyond tonight, let alone as far as 2015.

"Who knows?" they muse.

And who cares? So I force them further into the future. You are 35 to 40, the mother or father of two children. One comes home and says, "I've been misbehaving at school. They've excluded me for five days." What do you do?

The amazing thing is that all of these youngsters give their future offspring a momentous wigging, ground them, play hell. "What are you doing, wasting your life? How dare you?" they say.

Hold on a minute, I reply. Suppose your child gives you a hard time and says: "Come off it, I've been talking to grandma and she tells me you're just like your mumdad - they were always in bother at school."

"Er, yes, fair enough," the teenager now replies. "But I'd understand."

Politicians who argue about difficult adolescents in the cosy, sanitised bubble of Westminster don't understand. From a safe distance, more exams, league tables, crackdowns, pressure on teachers and well-intended pontification may seem to be the answer. But a better solution lies in what pupils actually do in school, the curriculum and the processes that go with it.

A couple of years ago, I taught a boy who got one grade C at GCSE and a number of grade Ds. From where he started, it was a monumental achievement.

No one in his family had ever got even a grade Z. Yet no one celebrated it, apart from his teachers.

On GCSE results day, journalists are looking for people with 10 A* grades to feature on the front page, not successful underdogs. They must stay beneath the salt, for they are the scumbag caste.

In this context, the cavalier rejection of the Tomlinson report by the Prime Minister and the supremely anonymous Ruth Kelly, is an act of huge insensitivity. At least Sir Mike tried to address the curriculum needs of the disaffected as well as those of the more orthodox, but got shoved under a metaphorical bus for his pains.

As a professional person, I can have as many rages as I want. Road rage? Swear volubly at a few passing motorists. Trolley or queue rage? Dump your full basket and go to another supermarket. League table rage? Take the mick out of them. Politician rage? Imagine them sitting on the toilet. A great leveller.

But if you are in Year 9, your mum and dad have split up, your neighbours are crooks, your home is a lead-fumed slum, invisible micro-beasties are tearing around your body and soul, politicians and press think you are disgusting trash, and your only adult supporters are teachers who actually care what happens to you - even if you swear and rant at them and go walkabout - then anger is taboo.

It's more and more exams for you, chaps. And if you don't like them, then tough, tough, tough action will be taken. There's an election coming up, so tough, tough, tough luck.

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