Why me and me mates joyride

30th January 1998 at 00:00
Last week I was asked by one of my trainee teachers what a "controversial issue" was. I found myself saying it was anything that did not conform to the status quo; anything which made you, as a teacher, seem to have any views not acceptable to the majority; or anything that could contravene any parent's sensibilities. But the question fired back, "Well, how do you educate if you can only preach?"

This is the puzzle: education must help young people to live and thrive in the real world but teachers are not supposed to understand their dilemmas at first hand. They must not have smoked cannabis (certainly never have inhaled), or swallowed an E tablet, never had problems with their sexuality and never gone joyriding.

The highly-contrived arena of personal and social education in the curriculum, which is often invaded by the school nurse or some worthy charity collection, is not the right way to help young people to look at the way society works and to make informed choices.

Having recently watched a television programme where young smokers were unimpressed by the new and expensive anti-smoking campaign - because they could not grasp the notion of future dangers - I wondered where were the opportunities to discuss dangerous issues at school?

A simple answer would be to establish a sociologypsychologyphilosophy core for all pupils.

The composite subject would have a clear framework for discussion and an exam structure that resists emotional or revolutionary outbursts and allows the teacher to look into social problems without seeming to be a low-life, hippy perverter of young minds.

As one pupil in a disadvantaged area who was taking GCSE social science said to his teacher: "It's great. I now understand why me and me mates joyride and set fire to cars." His teacher was then able to discuss the disadvantage of this activity by quoting research findings. We have no knowledge whether he stopped setting fire to cars, but he was more aware of the social context and possible alternatives to "trashing" his own area.

As a convert to social science from English teaching and a trainer of excellent young teachers with social science backgrounds, I am amazed that the tension about social science is so pervasive. Where are these left-wing revolutionaries whom everyone fears?

The subversion that really matters is the one that should come from letting in knowledge to enliven the national curriculum and bring real issues into the classroom within an acceptable framework.

As one of my former students said to me: "I did drugs, excessive drinking, gambling and I must help young people from my sort of background to see it's a mug's game." Give him a framework within which to speak so he won't be in trouble with the governors.

Pat Smith (above) is PGCE tutor for social science at Keele University and has taught in schools for 20 yearsl If you have a strong opinion about a curriculum issue, write to Brendan O'Malley, secondary curriculum editor, TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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