Pupils are being failed

4th June 2010 at 01:00

I read in the Guardian that 17 per cent of teenagers leave school "functionally illiterate", and that 22 per cent are "functionally innumerate". Greg Brooks, professor of education at the University of Sheffield, reckons these young people will be unable to deal confidently with many of the mathematical challenges of modern life, and won't be able to partake fully in employment, family life or citizenship.

Of course, these are English teenagers. So we don't need to worry up here because, as we all know, Scottish education is so much better. North of the border, all our weans can read and write and have no bother counting.

I'd laugh if it didn't make me so sad. It's not as if these illiterate and innumerate kids are happy. I accept that being nearly 60 means I am one of the luckiest people ever. Born after the austerity of the war, into a life with free university education, apprenticeships and plenty jobs, we were the generation who couldn't lose. The Pill was available, council housing still existed and work was plentiful.

Just living in the developed world gave us a wealth and access to medical help denied to 97 per cent of developing countries. Everyone could find work and have their own homes.

Life was so easy, in fact, that we forgot to look to our youngsters. Employment nowadays is a nightmare for our grown children, accommodation is exorbitant and, while huge numbers might aspire to university, it doesn't seem to lead them to find work.

Some of the kids Brooks describes show an arrogance that doesn't become them, and are audacious in their behaviour and attitude. Yet scrape under the surface and we find a fear and insecurity that often shows itself in loud-mouthed defiance.

These youngsters need to be stopped, to be given boundaries. Pupils who feel free to answer back rudely, to refuse to work and to ignore instructions can't learn.

Looking at them as they strut their stuff, we should not see them as frightening louts who care for nothing or no one, but as scared youngsters who are on a roller-coaster they can't get off; they won't find work and they will have children they can't successfully parent.

My theory is that our children who are not learning are out of their own control, let alone ours. The 20 per cent or so whom Brooks describes feel hellish about themselves, hate coming into school where their inability to read and write means they can't take part in lessons - so they feel stupid into the bargain.

We are doing these pupils no favours by letting it happen. Primary classes don't need to get smaller - but they do need two teachers each, one to control the class while the other teaches. They also need far more time and practice on basic skills.

It might seem harsh, but we have to accept that we have failed a fifth of our pupils.

Penny Ward is a secondary teacher.

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