British Teenagers Today

10 June 2009
The Tablet

Back in the mists of time, in the late 1980s, when I first started teaching life was relatively uncomplicated for the British teenager. They had far less distractions and pressures than today. They might watch too much TV, play the odd badly animated computer game, might hang around with their friends on streetcorners yearning for the latest designer shoes or have ambitions to buy a great car. The internet was a name only known science geeks, email only for celebrated academics, chatting on MSN, putting profiles on MySpace, Facebook, Bebo completely unheard of, X-boxes, Playstations, Guitar Hero games totally unconceived; Ipods, mobile phones, video phones, SAT-NAVs were gadgets that even the science fiction movies hadn’t dreamt of.

Perhaps most significantly, there was a great deal less pressure on children to be spectacular successes at school. League tables were yet to be introduced and teachers like me were not commanded to make sure that we got top results from every pupil. Instead, there was vague rhetoric about helping a child achieve their "full potential", but senior managers were not threatening to withhold pay rises if teachers’ results were not up to snuff. As a result, there was a fairly relaxed atmosphere in most British classrooms. On the whole, even in the roughest of schools bar a few, an amiable companionship existed between pupil and teacher. The top achievers were not garlanded with prizes, nor were the lazy and thick labelled as losers.

How different things are now! Your average British child spends hours every day on the internet, chatting with their friends on MSN, checking out the latest coolest clips on YouTube, comparing fashions and causes on Facebook or Bebo, playing a whole host of computer games; downloading, usually illegally, the trendiest music and playing it on what they hope will be the most envied Ipod currently available; watching their favourite TV programmes, recorded on Sky Plus; and socialising with friends, going to parties arranged quickly, covertly and haphazardly by mobile phone and the internet, where they will probably imbibe far too much alcohol bought cheaply at the local supermarket.

Add to all these social pressures to conform and to have the latest gear, the intense demands to do well in their exams mean our teenagers far more unhappy than when I first started teaching. A recent Unicef survey revealed that Britain has the unhappiest and most troubled children in Europe: they are more likely to be depressed, to suffer from low self-esteem, to drink alcohol and to have under-age sex than their European counterparts.

What I’ve observed as a teacher in various comprehensives for nearly two decades is that both boys and girls have become unhappier in different ways. Many teenage girls I have taught strive for perfection in so many spheres: to appear sexually alluring, to be top of the class, to be the most popular girl, and most insidiously to be part of the “toughest” girl gang. Meanwhile, many boys are infected with the desire to have the greatest footballing knowledge and acumen, and to have the best "stuff". Britain has become much more materialistic and this is reflected in the conversations I overhear teenagers having in school: it is an endless talk about what gear, what gadgets, what clothes, what computers and TVs they’ve got. And if they’re not discussing that they’re discussing their school work: their grades and the homework they’ve have to do — or avoid doing.

It all amounts to pressure, pressure, pressure from all sides and makes me wonder whether we’ve forgotten to teach our children that most vital skill: how to live a fulfilled and meaningful life. I would draw back from saying that it is teachers’ jobs to make our children “happy”. In a way, teenagers are suffering because they are so desperately seeking happiness in quick fixes: by binge drinking, by having brief sexual encounters, by swotting madly for an exam, by watching a clip on YouTube and believing they are experts on that subject. They are less and less willing to enjoy activities in themselves, to see their intrinsic worth, less and less able to countenance absorbing knowledge and life in a slow, level-headed fashion: it is the end result that entrances them not, not the getting there. As a consequence, they are permanently unsatisfied, always looking over their shoulders for the next best thing, whether this is in the academic or social sphere.

Ironically, the educational pressure we have put on children has not actually led to a “real” improvement in standards. Sure, students are passing exams in increasing numbers but genuine studies of their attainment – such as the recent OECD report comparing educational systems in the developed world – reveal we are doing little better than we were twenty or thirty years ago, despite all the money pumped into the system.

If we are going to improve things, we need to give our children an education which aims to stimulate children’s curiosity, to make them ask questions about the world around them, to enthuse them about the sheer wonder of being alive, rather than force them to study a curricula which embodies, in so many ways, the worst materialistic values of modern-day Britain.

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