Teen generation needs help now

30th May 1997 at 01:00
Jessica Wright says the drive to raise standards must not neglect 14 to 16 year-olds

My concern is the significant minority of disaffected 14 to 16-year-olds in our secondary schools. With the limited resources at the Government's disposal the temptation may be to concentrate on the new generation, as yet untouched by the educational system.

It is right that young children should start school in smaller classes, to give them a head start in the literacy and numeracy stakes. I hope, though, that the Government will not neglect the older pupils. Greater training opportunities when they leave school will be vital, but in the meantime they need help - and they need it urgently.

These teenagers are the victims of right-wing excesses and left-wing ideology. Tory governments have cut funding to the bone and imposed changes which have put our schools in crisis and exhausted our teachers. The legacy of Sixties' and Seventies' thinking has been the abandonment of a structured approach to teaching literacy.

Together these factors have failed many thousands of young people. They are demotivated, semi-literate, and ill-prepared for life after school. Whatever the cause, we have to find a cure.

It will not be easy to do so. Streetwise teenagers do not want to be put into ghettos of "special needs" or "literacy recovery" groups. It may be too late for some to reach high levels of literacy within school. They will be better served by focusing resources on vocational training - not just when they leave school at 16, by which time many will have dropped out and lost the habit of getting up in the morning, but now, before it is too late.

League tables have put pressure on schools to demonstrate academic success, so that too few offer general national vocational qualifications. As a result, pupils who are not academically successful suffer a lack of self-esteem. Too often they are written off as "lazy" or displaying a "negative attitude". A high number develop "behaviour problems" leading to temporary suspension or permanent exclusion. Their future is bleak unless they are given something to aim for, skills which they can use in the workplace, a sense of value in our society.

I have a vested interest in seeing that the forgotten teenagers are given their due. My son Sam is 14, and he has all but given up on school. Once he was a bright, articulate toddler, remarked upon by all - including the family GP and health visitor - for his obvious intelligence. But his progress through the educational system has been a tragic example of what can go wrong when structured learning is abandoned, educational needs are not met, teachers are overworked and classes are too big.

It is a credit to Sam that he coped so well for so long. His sociability and sporting prowess buoyed him up in primary school, but his confidence and motivation have been steadily eroded by years spent within a state system where his dyslexia has been unacknowledged due to a combination of ideology and under-resourcing.

Now 14, over the past year he has become disillusioned and demotivated, and has slipped into school refusal. We, his parents, are fighting to get our six-foot son out of bed each morning and into the school he loathes.

It has been an eye-opener to discover how many pupils are like Sam, how many parents live with the fear of being taken to court for failing to get their child to school. For people like us the buzzwords "parental choice", "parent participation" and "home-school contracts" raise a hollow laugh.

There is no parental choice when you have a non-academic or a dyslexic child and the best local comprehensive school is over-subscribed. Frustration grows when teachers see you only as an over-anxious or pushy mother because you seek an explanation for your child's failure to learn.

You soon realise that most parents are not indifferent, but care deeply about their children's education. You realise that the home-school contract would be a gimmick placing yet another burden on the caring parent, while the truly negligent parent would simply put up two fingers at it. And who would benefit from attempts to enforce it? Certainly not the child.

Most parents want their children to be educated, and will be glad to back up their child's school when they can see that their child is receiving a better chance. No decent parent should have to live in fear of being taken to court over failing to get their child to school.

Far better to concentrate resources on remotivating school refusers by extending special units offering flexibly-designed courses, and imaginative vocational training within schools.

Most teenagers do not want to spend their days in bed or wandering the streets, but would rather be part of a happy, fulfilled and creative school community.

There will always be a minority for whom this doesn't work, but the majority will thrive under a new system geared to addressing their weaknesses and tapping their strengths.

Jessica Wright is a pseudonym

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