'They took our last day away from us'

8th June 2001 at 01:00
Emotional intelligence has been a buzzword for a few years. Teachers have training days on Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. The Government has advisers on emotional literacy. Nowadays, we're all in touch with our feelings and tuned in to the needs of others.

Oh, yeah? Consider this. One universal and recurrent human emotional need is for what psychotherapists call "closure" - the acknowledgement of endings, be they farewells or funerals. Yet what happens to our Year 11 pupils as they prepare to take their first set of daunting public exams - GCSEs? In many schools, for fear of "trouble", they are being swept off the premises like so much wastepaper, and with as little ceremony. School managers seem to have made a simple equation: "goodbyes equal upset, so let's just skip the goodbyes. So long, you've been a pain in the neck."

My son attends a school in north London with a high-flying academic reputation. There are a number of genuine troublemakers in his year with whom the school has become exasperated. But there are also many normal, high-spirited kids - 15 and 16-year-olds, selected for academic ability, mostly from motivated backgrounds - who have been made to feel, in my son's words, "that the school thinks we are just rubbish". Throughout this academic year, they have been collectively told that they are "the worst Year 11 we've had". Can it really be that all 180 are villains of the deepest dye? If not, why tar them all with the same dismissive brush?

Why, too, reiterate this message just before important exams? Far from whipping them into shape, such contemptuous comments only make adolescents rage, with predictable consequences.

It reached a climax over the past few days of schooling. Pupils planned to mark the last day on which they would all be in school together by the harmless pastimes of taking photographs, writing on each other's shirts and collecting yearbooks. They also plotted to fight with water, eggs and flour, which would be much less desirable for the school, though not beyond the wit of intelligent people to circumvent.

However, this school, like many others I have discovered, opted instead to spring a surprise. "Today is the last day," pupls were told a day before the diary date. "So get your things and leave. You may only return if you have exams, otherwise you will be escorted from the premises."

Well, we don't need in-service training in emotional literacy to know what happens when you summarily eject a lot of people from a building. Obviously, everyone was upset and, after a lot of crying, staged a sit-in, scrawled graffiti on the walls and went in for some vandalism.

The next day, when my son was off buying tickets for a pop festival, some of the angriest walked into school in their uniforms and had a wild party in the old music rooms. Then, one girl told me: "They had to escort people out and they stood there with their joints and bottles of vodka, smoking and swearing to make a bad impression on the Year 7 parents when they came to pick up their kids."

They sound like real desperadoes, don't they? Especially the swearing.

In contrast, another local school laid on a buffet lunch for its leavers.

"We can't allow eggs and flour on the premises," they told them. "So why don't you go off to the park?" The few who transgressed - of course, there are always some - were escorted from the grounds, it's true. The crucial difference being that they were the ones who had spoiled their own experience, rather than mean adults strangling it at birth. As my son said:

"They took our last day away from us."

Adolescents are not angelic beings whose quest for fulfilment must be assisted at all times. Nor, however, are they all potential criminals who need a stern hand to restrict their every impulse. If, as teachers from other schools have told me, school-leavers have vandalised teachers' cars, then there should be a criminal investigation. If, on the other hand, they just want to say goodbye in a messy fashion, then school managers have to set boundaries.

Boundaries need policing, which can feel like a thankless task. Yet actually, policing boundaries is the task set by emotional intelligence for those dealing with adolescents. And if you don't like dealing with adolescents, however much training you do, you should not be working in secondary education.

Victoria Neumark is a freelance journalist


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