Sunday, 28 August 2011

Bursting the ‘too cool for school’ bubble.

Its exam results week and so every news report has been full of footage of excited teens jumping for joy as they get their GCSE results. All bright eyes and boundless enthusiasm, like an episode of Glee with a less infectious soundtrack and wonkier teeth.

Yet again the number of students gaining A to C grades (70% this time) has risen for the twenty third year in a row, the number of A to A* grades has risen too up from 22.6% last year to 23.2% this time round. For a while things sounded more than a little like a Soviet factory year end report, all roads lead onwards to success, but, of course, there is a fly in the ointment; several flies in fact.

For a start the joy of the nation’s teens must have been dampened by the annual chorus of harrumphing from middle aged hacks that exams are getting easier and schools putting children under ever more pressure to jump through the testing hoop meaning that any wider understanding of the subjects being taught is steadily being eroded.

There is also the small matter that even if you believe take the results at face value the news isn’t all good, in fact for boys, of whom only 19.6% gained A to A* grades compared to 26.5% of girls its slipping past the ‘mediocrity welcomes careful drivers’ sign and heading towards downright bad. A government spokesman told the BBC that the gap between boys’ and girls’ results was a ‘concern’, but that improvements to teaching in primary schools would help to improve the situation.

That sounds like an overly complacent response in the light of some other results that were released this week over which nobody felt much like jumping up and down for joy. This week the number of teenagers not in education employment or training, NEETS as the tabloids like to call them, rose from 16.3% of eighteen to twenty four year olds to 18.4%.

NEET, like CHAV is an ugly piece of shorthand that, like all such terms, implicitly condones prejudice by removing the humanity from the people to whom it is applied, it is though impossible not to recognise there is a serious problem. Unemployment can, as a spokesperson for the Prince’s Trust told the BBC this week ‘have a brutal impact on young people with thousands suffering from mental health problems, feelings of self loathing and panic attacks.’

It is also hard not to draw a parallel between high youth unemployment and boys’ poor performance at school. The kids of either gender who get a fistful of GCSE’s might not get a job straight away and when they do it might not be what they wanted to do, but the kids who come away from school with nothing will invariably end up in trouble of one sort or another.

The government has made promises about tackling youth unemployment, introducing a Work Programme and funding more adult apprenticeships, but as ever its policies are inconsistent; any good work done by the initiatives mentioned previously is likely to be undone by the scrapping of the EMA and savage cuts to careers advice for young people.

The problem of underachieving boys is one that requires a genuinely joined up response of the sort we are uniquely bad at developing in this country. Instead everyone with a stake in the issue seems intent on fighting their own little battle with the result that the wider war never moves beyond a messy stalemate.

Schools need to recognise that to succeed in education boys need structure, discipline and competition; three things that have been absent from modern child centred theories of education. We also need to develop a system of vocational education that gives non-academic, but still intelligent students, a means of gaining the skills and self esteem they need to thrive.

We also have a massive problem when it comes to using popular culture to show boys the value of education. The sorry parade of bling draped footballers and rap stars held up as role models just don’t do the job, in fact the implied celebration of all that is boorish, stupid and obsessed with instant gratification attacks the notion of diligent hard work that underpins success in education and the wider world. When this is allied with the ‘cult of cool’ that sees anything requiring effort or quiet reflection as being either boring or suspect the resulting combination is truly toxic.

Education is the route away from a difficult beginning to a better and more satisfying future; something the countries in the Far East against whom we are competing understand implicitly, as do many of those on mainland Europe. In Britain we have made the mistake of thinking that education and equality for all matter less than being a ‘safe haven’ for investor’s money; that whole sections of society can be abandoned without hope or opportunity.

A few weeks ago we saw the net result of such thinking played out as violent chaos on the streets of London and other major cities. If we’ve learnt anything from what happened then it should be that education and opportunity are the best defence against the mob.

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