Why do pupils, particularly boys, become disillusioned with school? Evidence suggests the answer lies in the often troubled early years of adolescence. Jonathan Scales and Rachel Taplin report
WITH the polls suggesting he will win a spring election, prime minister Tony Blair is already focusing on the early secondary years as the key education priority for his second term.
For years evidence has been mounting to show that when children transfer from primary to secondary school, academic achievement falters.
It is in this critical period that the performance gap between boys and girls widens and the behaviour of a growing minority of children deteriorates.
As Professor Ted Wragg argues in today's TES (see Platform, 15) raging hormones and physical changes are a key factor behind these problems.
Education reformers rightly draw our attention to teaching strategies and the effects of transferring pupils from junior to senior school, but equally importantly, they need also to respond to the needs of a generation who are reaching puberty at a younger age than ever.
But who are these adolescents? What are their feelings about school and what do they expect as they grow up? Why do some of them become disaffected, causing acute problems to both schools and society at large?
Important clues have emerged in an analysis of data from the British Household Panel Study carried out exclusively for The TES by Essex University (see box below).
The survey - based on interviews with 1,000 children aged between 11 and 15 - charts the rise in alcohol consumption, smoking and contact with drug-users, as children enter their teens.
By the age of 15, nearly 60 per cent of adolescents admit to having friends who use drugs (compared with just 2 per cent of 11-year-olds) and 70 per cent claim to have consumed alcohol in the last month (compared with 14 per cent at 11).
As well as this surge in teenage drink and drug use - which has done much to fuel public concerns about "yob" culture - is a worrying trend towards vandalism, truancy and distrust of the police (see chart bottom right).
There are important differences between the sexes. At all ages girls are just as likely as boys to smoke, drink, have friends who use drugs, and are almost as likely to truant.
Boys, however, are almost three times as likely as girls to to say they have committed vandalism in the past year. They are also far more likely to have been suspended from school.
These signs of growing disaffection at the onset of adolescence are borne out by children's attitude to school. While most pupils continue to like most of their teachers and recognise the importance of doing well at school, such positive attitudes weaken as they get older. There is also a steady rise in the number of pupils who say "teachers are always getting at" them (nearly 20 per cent of 14 and 15-year-olds).
Perhaps the most striking finding is the gulf between boys' and girls' attitudes to staying on at school after the age of 16 (see chart above right).
After transferring to secondary school the proportion of both girls and boys expecting to leave school as soon as possible rises sharply - a classic sign of unhappiness or loss of motivation.
But while girls steadily recover so that, by the age of 15, only 6 per cent expect to leave at 16, boys do not - three times as many boys as girls say they intend to drop out at 16.
Inriguingly, while girls and boys from unskilled families have roughly equal expectations, girls with professional, managerial and skilled parents are far more likely than their male peers to expect to stay on (see chart right).
The message is clear: middle-class boys are much more disaffected than middle-class girls - a fact that helps to explain why young women are now beginning to outperform men at university and take them on for the top jobs.
The survey shows that boys who expect to leave school at 16 are far more likely to have played truant than boys who expect to stay on. They are also more likely to have a grievance against their teachers (a striking 45 per cent of those who think they will leave say they think "their teachers are always getting at" them). They are also more likely to have been suspended.
A similar trend is apparent among girls, though girls expecting to leave school are less likely to play truant than boys and more likely to worry about bullying.
Both boys and girls who intend to leave school early are, unsurprisingly, less likely to think that school is important to their future. Two-thirds of pupils intending to stay on say they think school means a great deal to them compared to a third of those expecting to leave.
Although the survey does give us a valuable understanding of when pupils are turned off school, it is difficult to draw from it simple explanations of why they become disaffected.
Perhaps, as Professor Wragg observes, a major reason is the age-old turmoil associated with growing up.
But it also seems that many children are simply bored with what they are offered at school, or feel frustrated because they are not getting enough attention.
Evidence to support the idea of boredom being a key factor driving pupils out of school can be found in the British Household Survey.
Using the survey data, it is possible to construct a profile of children who commit vandalism, in terms of their well-being, level of motivation and mental ability (based on a simple comprehension test).
Perhaps surprisingly, what emerges is that the typical teenage vandal does not have lower self-esteem or any less belief in his (or, less often, her) own ability than his non-vandalising peers. Nor is he measurably less intelligent. He is, however, significantly more likely to suffer from boredom.
Will Tony Blair's education reforms inspire this typical vandal? Only time will tell. But, as this snapshot of young people's attitudes shows, growing up isn't getting any easier. Today's youngsters have to cope with the turmoil of adolescence at an earlier age than their parents did.
In fact the results of the survey could be seen as a cry for help. Will the politicians and policy-makers listen?
Dr Jonathan Scales is a sociologist working with the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex University (see box left). Rachel Taplin is a project manager at Braintree District Council
The British Household Panel Study is an annual survey, which began in 1991. It tracks the progress of the lives of over 10,000 adults and 1,000 children living in 5,500 households across the United Kingdom.
It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and conducted by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at Essex University.
For more information visit the institute's website at www.iser.essex.ac.uk