Perils of being thirteen

26th November 2004 at 00:00
It's that age when so many things change - physically, mentally, socially. No wonder school takes second place. David Newnham reports

If you look up the word "teen" in a dictionary, you might be in for a surprise. The suffix "-teen" turns out to be little more than "ten" said in a funny way. And after "-teen" comes the plural "teens", which seems to have had a life of its own since 1673. But before either of these, you will find an entirely separate, if archaic, word "teen", which has nothing to do with numbers, and even less with adolescence. But that's a little hard to believe when you consider its meaning and roots. In Shakespeare's day, "teen" denoted anger, annoyance and irritation. It comes from the ancient Greek for "misery". And what teenager doesn't know the full meaning of that word?

The agonies of adolescence are real enough - spots, periods, boys, girls, hair, clothes, and more spots. In an association test, "teenage" will be coupled with "angst" at least as often as "werewolf". And when does this anxiety begin to bite? At 13. That's why Sue Townsend chose to make her celebrated diarist, Adrian Mole, 13 and three-quarters. "It's at that age, as puberty kicks in, that they begin to become separate entities from their parents," she says. "Their parents don't know what's going on inside their heads at all. They live entirely secret lives."

Ms Townsend worked with teenagers for years, and now has two 13-year-old grand-daughters. "The main thing is the massive mood swings," she says.

"Their highs are very high and their lows incredibly low. Their concentration is appalling in the classroom because their constant need is to fit in with their peer group. Teachers may think they're listening to a lesson on the French Revolution, but they're not. They are plotting inside their heads how to get that pair of trainers."

The dip in classroom performance during Year 8 is well documented. Research suggests one explanation is a mismatch between lessons and teenagers'

heightened awareness of themselves as people.

Year 8 might seem like "the perfect year". Pupils have made the great leap from primary to secondary and got through their first year on the other side. They are no longer the youngest kids in the playground. They also know their way around, their faces are familiar and they have a new confidence. Their increased maturity and status is probably recognised by staff, and they will be treated more like responsible adults for the first time in their lives. As if this were not enough to make Year 8 a golden age, they find themselves free of formal tests.

In a new study published by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Dr Eileen Carnell explores the significance of this sudden release.

"You know the exams are coming, but not now," one pupil told her. In all schools she visited, there was "a notion of being in waiting" - of preparing for Year 9, with its Sats and GCSE choices. In a culture that seems to value only what is tested, it is not surprising that pupils regard Year 8 as a year lacking value or purpose, says Dr Carnell. She found that the main item on the Year 8 agenda was socialising. Chatting with their mates is the most important aspect of school life, she says. Yet the education system does little to capitalise on this enthusiasm.

"Young people are separated from their friends because the dominant view of learning is about individual learning rather than collaboration. It's a very strange situation."

Alan Gibbons, a former teacher and award-winning writer of fiction for the early teens, is also aware of the downside of adolescence.

"It's often the age at which progress starts to stall and peer pressure kicks in heavily," he says.

He cites a recent report in south Wales which warned that bright children consciously fail so that they can avoid being seen as boffins.

"That pressure, together with pressure on fashion and on looks, starts to come together at that age," he says. "It can be a troubled time."

An "uncomfortable time" is how Cedric Cullingford, professor of education at Huddersfield university, describes it. He has carried out hundreds of interviews with Year 8 pupils and is aware of the prevalence of bullying at that age, and the "enormous half-hidden experience of teasing or being picked on".

For him, peers fill a vacuum left by inadequate parenting. "Those who have been brought up by parents who couldn't care less turn to their peers for distraction and alternative ways of thinking," he says. "This is where the gangs are formed and the exclusion from school begins."

But it is not only interaction with their peers that 13-year-olds crave, he explains. They also need an intellectual relationship with their teachers.

"What they find most difficult is the distinction between role and personality," he says. "What they long for is to have an adult with whom they can discuss things - someone they can actually talk to. But teachers don't have time.

"The chance to talk to an ordinary adult in ordinary circumstances is very little, so pupils can find school a disheartening experience."

Paul Summers' work with Year 8 pupils hinges on precisely that sort of intellectual relationship. He runs creative writing and film-making projects at several schools in the North East. "It's a bit bewildering for them - all that transitional stuff that's going on," he says. "In one respect, they are very much still kiddies, and a lot of their references are still from childhood. But they are on the cusp, starting to wrestle with change of identity and coming to terms with their various selves. It's that burgeoning moment where you're starting to be something independent and stop holding your mum and dad's hand. It is horrifying and fun at the same time."

Often, says Alan Gibbons, this struggle for identity will not be resolved until they get into the sixth-form. In the meantime, a 13-year-old has an eternity of frustration to endure.

"You don't get instant respect, and you don't yet have the fear factor that 15-year-olds do. Adults start to shy away from the older teenagers, but children in Year 8 can often be patronised by some teachers. It makes me wince when a child buys a copy of one of my books and I'm signing it for them and the teacher leans across them and says, 'Good girl.' I want to scream. It's the last thing that kid wants to hear."

It is also the age, he says, at which "an interest in politics with a small 'p' begins to emerge, and from late Year 7 you see "a ferocious interest in racism and the environment".

And with greater awareness comes an acute sensitivity to issues of fairness and justice. "The one big thing that my daughters hate is when the teacher punishes the class over two or three mischievous kids," says Mr Gibbons.

"They come home boiling about that."

For Dr Carnell, it is this growing awareness, combined with an unerring savvy, that makes the Year 8 pupil such a "huge resource in terms of education". "They are very knowledgeable and very astute," she says. "They know exactly what's going on, about what is valued and what isn't, and about the futility of some of the things, like target-setting, that they are asked to do. They can see through it. But people don't value their opinion. It is not seen as relevant to ask them about school life. "One young man I spoke to was very articulate about not being able to make decisions. He felt that any points that young people made were not really listened to. But if young people were included more and asked about their learning, they would be less likely to become disaffected. They would not suggest things that are outrageous. They would make valuable points. They would come up with some fantastic things, and school would be a much better place."

'It's like mixing colours: how young people view their learning within the context of the KS3 strategy' is available from ATL, pound;12.99 (free to members). Defender, by Alan Gibbons (Orion, pound;4.99) Adrian Mole And The Weapons Of Mass Destruction, by Sue Townsend, is published this month by Penguin, pound;16.99

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