They are the Kevin and Perry generation – bored teenagers, with mobile phones and expensive trainers, whose burning ambition is to leave school as soon as they can. They don't like school, and the last people they respect are their teachers. Long gone are the days when teenagers displayed any deference to "Sir" or "Miss".
Anxiety about the way teachers relate to their pupils – and just how many teenagers are being failed by the system – has led the Government to consider reforms to secondary schooling. Last week, the Amy Gehring case focused the spotlight even more intently on teenagers and the pastoral care offered by teachers. The Canadian teacher was accused and acquitted of having sex with under-age boys, but the court heard how Gehring developed friendships with her pupils that would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago. It led an angry Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, to order an inquiry into how the biology teacher was allowed to continue to teach after accusations about her first emerged.
Ms Morris has set her sights on secondary schooling. Not only does she want to stop anything like the Gehring case from ever happening again but she wants to rethink education as a whole for this age group. One in four British teenagers leave at 16. Some get jobs, but almost as many again go straight on the dole, and studies have found that serious social and health problems can develop if youngsters drop out early.
For many, traditional schooling in academic subjects is irrelevant. With few alternatives to endless days of double maths, Tudor history and 19th-century literature, getting out seems the only option, however limited the prospects. The Education Act of 1944 promised a different generation of bored teenagers who didn't warm to academic studies a revolution in vocational training. It didn't happen. Now Ms Morris is promising another "vocational renaissance" as part of a shake-up of 14-19 education aimed at ending the drain of talent and potential from the school system. A senior source at the Department for Education and Skills said: "The reason we're doing this is that in this country, when you get to 16, we ask, 'Are you staying on?' as if it's almost a surprise. In the States they ask: 'Are you dropping out?' as if that's the surprise. We want to change that culture."
The aim is threefold: to equip school leavers with the training they need to be part of the future workforce; to open up opportunities for young people to secure lucrative jobs in industry and IT, for example; and to stem the causes of crime, poverty, homelessness, alcoholism and drug abuse which blight the lives of so many young Britons. It is a step towards Labour's goal of maximising productivity and keeping down unemployment in an economy increasingly short of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.
To achieve this, the Government seems to have tapped into a central truth about teenagers: they like getting their own way. The department source said: "The whole 14-19 learning process has got to be much more tailored to the individual's aspirations and needs and much more exciting and challenging for them."
Choice, flexibility and guidance are at the heart of the new programme to be outlined in a Green Paper on Tuesday. Students choosing a vocational route at 14 can attend specialist schools geared to science, music and sport. But critics claim the Government is in danger of creating a two-tier system with academic high-flyers segregated from the less academic of their peers. But the Department for Education and Skills is adamant it is not "laying on courses for pupils who are not up to academic standards".
In its first term of office, the Labour government concentrated resources on improving standards in primary schools. The second term is planned to focus on secondary education, and ministers want vocational training to be as prestigious as academic qualifications. For children between 11 and 14 the task is seen as "stopping progress being arrested". But by 14 teenagers are sitting crucial stage-three tests, and ministers believe more needs to be done for their future.
Later this year the Government is expected to announce measures to instil in youngsters a sense of community and citizenship. The pastoral role of teachers is likely to be reviewed as part of this second phase of secondary school reform. Ministers will also be under pressure to consider tighter controls on school staff after the Gehring case. For now, however, the focus is on the curriculum and what is being billed as the "most radical blueprint for 14-19 education since the Forties".
The plans are an admission that the system has failed many people over the years. As the Department for Education and Skills puts it: "In each generation there's a hard core of people with few skills, little understanding of the benefits of learning and little encouragement to learn, and we have not been good enough at keeping them in. We haven't presented them with the right challenges and the right sort of opportunities that excite them. That is what we've got to do."Reuse content