Stench of teen spirit

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Do teenagers act like crazed loons simply because we expect them to behave badly, asks Jennifer Baker

Last week I watched yet another programme on television about indiscipline in schools. Such items have become weekly viewing. There are programmes about "brat camps"; about nannies called into homes to tame screaming, out-of-control offspring; about parents and their relationships with rude and foul-mouthed teenagers.

Then these monsters are sent into our schools for us to teach in groups of 30! And the amount of discipline that teachers are allowed to exert is, in reality, zilch. Detentions? Punishment exercises? It's a joke. The pupils have rights. The teachers have none.

Except now. The latest barmy government guideline on discipline gives senior teachers the right to search pupils who are suspected of carrying knives. What sane teacher would want to exercise that right?

A teacher in a city school told me recently that a former pupil had just been sent down for aggravated assault. Only the previous summer she was trying to get him to hand in homework. What she hadn't been told was that the youth had already been arrested for carrying a replica gun. It was felt that his class teachers did not need to have that information. The rights of the youth and confidentiality had to be observed.

Teachers, like hospital medical staff, are now in physical danger. Of course, in reality they always have been, from the occasional putative criminal or drug addict. But now they are also expected to carry out these searches and, should a weapon get through the net, teachers will be regarded as culpable. It's horrifying.

A school in which I recently did supply work was delighted because their school disco had gone off without incident "other than the usual drunks".

Ignoring the cheerful acceptance of teenage drunkenness and the fact that suspensions should be on the cards for such behaviour, I congratulated the colleagues for averting any problems.

I found out later that the disco had had four bouncers on the door, a couple of sniffer dogs inside and a paramedical team on hand in the car park! For a school disco. Ibiza Uncut springs to mind. Why have the disco at all?

As a result of the new "stop and search" policy, questions have being raised in the media about infringement of the rights of students. Not so many years ago students were searched regularly for cigarettes. In fact, these questions have nothing to do with the rights of students but more to do with fear of litigation. Should an innocent teenager object to being searched, the teacher could be sued or accused of sexual impropriety. This sort of thing is being reported more and more often in the press with most accusations later proven to be unfounded, but nonetheless leaving the teachers' careers and lives in tatters.

The thing is, all this nonsense turns me into someone I don't want to be. I find myself cheering the harassed mother in the supermarket who gives her moaning offspring a cuff; being delighted when a school demands standards of dress and sends girls home when they turn up in bikini tops; smiling when I see teachers insisting that children speak politely. Recently, I met one of my friend's sons. I hadn't seen him for a decade or so (he's now 35). He reminded me of a time when I had smacked him for some misdemeanour or other. My daughter (now 30) remembered a time when his mother had smacked her. I was horrified to hear myself say nostalgically, "Ah yes, those were the days when you got to hit each other's kids." I'm not turning into my mother - I'm turning into my grandmother!

Somewhere it has all gone wrong. At the school I went to in the 1960s the jobs of bouncers and drug detectors and paramedics were done by half a dozen nuns. And yes, there were drunks and be-drugged youths who tried to get into our dances - it was, after all, a girls' convent. The strange thing is that when the nuns told the intruders to go away, mostly, they went.

Why is it different now? What has changed? As an educator I refuse to believe that youth has gone to the dogs. People have said that for centuries.

Nevertheless something has changed. Could it be as simple as expectations? Could it be that somewhere along the line we began to accept that "teenagers" behave like crazed loons? And, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, they do.

Students do have rights. They have the right to be guided; to be searched; to be given responsibility; to be suspended for drunken behaviour; to have high standards demanded of them. I speak as a child of the Sixties. I set out on my teaching career with a great liberal ideology which I practised for many years. Perhaps my grandmother had it right after all.

Jennifer Baker is a freelance writer and part-time supply teacher. She was formerly head of faculty at a large Lancashire comprehensive

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