Generation that expects a world of difference

GCSE results are out today, and for most 16-year-olds they are just a staging post to more qualifications. How different to many of their parents' prospects at the same age
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The Independent Online

At just 16 years old, 35 years ago, John Peacock had already left his East Yorkshire grammar school to be a deep-sea fisherman, going to sea for three weeks at a stretch in conditions so harsh and icy that he vowed a thousand times over that when his feet hit land he'd never go back again.

At just 16 years old, 35 years ago, John Peacock had already left his East Yorkshire grammar school to be a deep-sea fisherman, going to sea for three weeks at a stretch in conditions so harsh and icy that he vowed a thousand times over that when his feet hit land he'd never go back again.

Compare and contrast the life of one of today's grammar-school 16-year-olds, Caroline McGuire, from Kent, who is also spending her summer working with water - as a lifeguard at a local swimming pool.

John had seen little of the world before heading for sea; Caroline has already lived in Belgium, travelled all over Europe and been to America. John couldn't wait to have some money in his pocket; Caroline gets £64 a month from her parents, plus what she earns from her job. John had been desperate to leave school and head for the working world; Caroline also has her eyes fixed ahead, but on a career as a barrister or journalist.

At 51, with the sobriety of a recovering alcoholic and the wisdom of an award-winning mature student, John urges anyone leaving school "to get as much studying and learning into them as they possibly can". Caroline says it never crossed her mind not to head for the sixth form and beyond. "I've known for years what I wanted to do."

Welcome to the world of today's 16-year-olds - a world of optimism, opportunities, and even, for some, not a small touch of opulence.

Because, with their computers, TVs and videos, their expensive orthodontics and designer-label sports gear, many of today's mid-teens live more like minor Hollywood stars than minors, while their extensive friendship networks, lovingly tended via e-mail and texting, seem to have leapt straight out of Beverly Hills 90210.

Yet they are not the spoiled brats that envious oldies might want them to be. A spate of recent surveys shows that the majority are well-adjusted, with a concern for the environment, good relationships with their parents and tolerant attitudes on race and gender, even if they don't much care about party politics or the future of Europe.

"Teenagers are a lot more sharp, inquisitive and enthusiastic than most mainstream commentators realise," says Craig McLean, deputy editor of The Face magazine, which earlier this year quizzed 1,000 teens in five cities in Britain and found them overwhelmingly keen to pursue their education, and happy to live in Britain.

Of course, poverty and low expectations still take their toll. The country has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe, drinking is a problem and many - particularly boys - continue to flounder at school. But behind every doom-laden headline there is often a heartening truth. While almost every 16-year-old in the country has come across drugs, for example, only a small minority abuses them, and even that number appears to be dropping.

"There are hundreds and thousands of kids out there doing well, getting good grades, and contributing to society," says Dr John Coleman, director of the Trust for the Study of Adolescence, who believes that adults are taken aback by teenagers because "we don't listen to them, we don't respect their views, so then we're surprised how mature and sensible they can be".

And they need to be. The choices they face are increasingly complex. Britain is still near the bottom of the European league when it comes to the proportion of 16-year-olds staying on in education, but strenuous efforts are being made to change that position.

About 30 per cent of 18-year-olds currently go to university. Tony Blair wants to increase this to 50 per cent. He also wants to boost vocational training and equip teens for the 21st century workplace, and he has pushed through legislation to do so.

As a result, the students getting their GCSE results today will be the first year group to embark on Curriculum 2000, the new post-16 education designed to offer flexibility and breadth. Gone are the old A-levels. Instead, students will study between three and five mini-A-levels for one year, then go on to two to four full A-levels the year after.

"Students will be spending a lot more time in class. They will find their timetables very full," says Tim Astbury, the curriculum manager of Stratford-upon-Avon College. "However, they seem to be coming through to us with quite a firm grasp of the implications."

Meanwhile, means-tested grants are available for those struggling with the costs of further education, while £1m worth of adventure training courses have been mounted this summer to boost the self-esteem of faltering 16-year-olds. Those in work can get time off for training, funded jointly by the Government and employers, while the new Connexions service, starting this autumn, will offer high-risk teenagers the support and careers guidance of personal advisers.

But such guidance has to be available to all if the new curriculum is to fulfil its promises, warns Tony Breslin, adviser on the 14-19 age group for the London borough of Enfield, who fears "the ordinary kid in the ordinary school" might miss out. "In higher education, we've seen greater numbers going in and greater numbers dropping out - usually pupils from backgrounds where there's no history of higher education, and unless we're careful, we're going to see exactly the same thing with post-16 education."

But by far the biggest challenge facing today's 16-year-olds is that the technological future seems certain to drive ever bigger wedges between the can-dos and the can'ts. Girls are outstripping boys at GCSE, and now even in the highest A-level grades. Children from poorer homes still lag behind.

The glimmer of light at the end of this particular tunnel, however, is that a child's actual performance at school, as much as their class background, is starting to become a major predictor of whether or not they will leave school at 16.