Teens come of age on big screen

13th November 2009 at 00:00
Branson and Greer on board as new Brit film compared to Al Gore's award-winner puts a spotlight on education

Cinematic coming of age has taken many forms: early-morning detention, lake-based dance lessons, sexual experimentation with baked goods. And, now, going to school in Swindon.

A new film, premiering in London next week, examines the problems facing the British education system, via five Swindon teenagers' path to adulthood.

The documentary,We Are the People We've Been Waiting For, follows the pupils as they make different educational choices. As in cinematic forerunners such as Stand by Me and The Breakfast Club, audience members are invited to identify with a series of archetypes and the journeys being played out before them.

So one teenager focuses on academic success, another aspires to become both a doctor and a footballer, while another has been excluded from school.

And 17-year-old Scott Harflett rejects academic learning so that he can study heating and plumbing.

"School is all about paperwork, paperwork, paperwork," he said. "And half of us ain't very good at it.

"Put a piece of paper in front of me and I'll chuck it away. But put a hammer and nails in front of me, and I'll make you some shelves. I think a lot of people will relate to that: it was about finding somewhere I belonged."

The Swindon pupils were chosen as the focus of the film because their home town is believed by market researchers to represent Britain in microcosm.

Caroline Rowland, the film's producerdirector, said: "Everyone in the audience responds to one particular character, and everyone responds to someone different. They see themselves, or their children, or someone close to them.

"It's so easy for adults to be critical of the younger generation. But we should be helping them to find their particular talent and develop it. We shouldn't write people off just because they don't fit our definition of success."

Interspersed between the Swindon stories, well-known commentators offer their views on the education system. These range from the academic - Germaine Greer - to education failures turned business successes, such as Richard Branson.

Dame Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College and chair of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, is shown highlighting the importance of vocational learning.

"We see young people leaving bits of themselves at the doors of academic institutions because there is no place for them inside," she said. "And that's a ridiculous price to pay. Practical learning is still the dark satanic mills compared with the green and pleasant land.

"But people who haven't done well in the ologies often catch their talents doing practical things. When cutting wood, suddenly maths makes sense to them for the first time."

Dame Ruth compares the film with Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

"It's not popular cinema," she said. "Will young people queue around the block at Camden Odeon? I don't think so. But they need to see it more than anyone else. We need to show it at parents' evenings, to employers - everyone who's involved in making tomorrow has to see it."

But this is not a conventional coming-of-age film, with simple, feel-good conclusions: there is no gratifying duckling-into-swan moment, in which the geek reveals her inner glamour or the rebel discovers his academic potential.

"Our film doesn't offer conclusions for any of the young people, or for the future of education," said Ms Rowland. "That's deliberate. We want to provoke questions, and then stimulate people to discuss them."


- Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939) - An ageing former headmaster looks back at his career and personal life.

- Blackboard Jungle (1955) - A new English teacher at an unruly inner-city school combats resistance from both pupils and teachers.

- To Sir, with Love (1967) - An idealistic black engineer confronts racial prejudice and poverty in London's East End.

- Heathers (1989) - A rebel misfit shoots and poisons popular pupils at a US high school.

- Half Nelson (2006) - A drug-addicted teacher forms an unlikely friendship with a pupil.

- The Class (2008) - A teacher spends a year trying to control a class of 14-year-olds from a tough Parisian neighbourhood.

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