Tom Sutcliffe: No wonder our teenagers are so demanding

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The Independent Online

In a valedictory speech to the Association of School and College leaders, its general secretary, John Dunford, has suggested that a modern culture of "instant gratification" has made the job of teachers "immensely harder than it was even 10 years ago". Tutored by television talent contests and online gaming, today's students, he argued, have come to expect instant results and are easily frustrated by anything which doesn't deliver an immediate sense of progress. "To engage the impatient young people of Generation Y, something more is needed."

That much was widely reported in the press – gloomy characterisations of the young generation always finding a ready market in the two or three generations ahead of them. What wasn't so widely reported was why Dr Dunford made this point – which was to underline the need for curriculum stability and a bit of breathing space for talented and creative teachers.

"All teachers under the age of 43," he pointed out, "have spent their whole career under a centrally directed, suffocating detailed national curriculum ... so it has been a challenge for school leaders to free up the thinking of their younger staff ..." In other words, it would have been just as accurate to headline reports of his speech with "Generation X teachers are 'less imaginative'" rather than "Generation Y children are 'harder to teach'".

This raises a fairly substantial question about the "impatience" of today's schoolchildren. Is it a culturally induced pathology which must be corrected by the application of old-fashioned kinds of hard work, as Dr Dunford himself seemed to hint by describing pupils as living in "a celebrity-dominated society where success appears to come instantly and without any real effort"? Or is a justified frustration at teaching which has failed to keep pace with developments in the modern world? To put it another way, are they failing us – as several of the news reports implicitly hinted – or are we failing them? Dr Dunford's speech seemed to muddle both views together in a way that made it hard to tell what he thinks. There's a big difference, after all, between saying "the competition for children's attention is stronger than it's ever been" and saying "children just can't concentrate any longer".

For those worried that it's the latter rather than the former, I would offer two notes of caution. The first would be that anyone who believes that computer games offer no tuition in deferred gratification or the unbreakable connection between effort and reward has never watched a child playing one. You might prefer your 14 year-old to pour as many hours into a real guitar as they seem willing to do into a virtual one – but that they are still capable of drudgery in pursuit of perfection is undeniable. It suggests that with the right kind of rewards – with genuinely playful teaching, for example – extraordinary things could be achieved. There isn't an inherent problem with their powers of concentration.

The second point would be this: how far do today's schoolchildren really have to look to encounter a system which is impatient of slow development and careful nurture? When I was at school, the first year of sixth form seemed to be devoted entirely to learning a new way to learn and GCSEs (or O levels) were a qualification that could be erased by what happened next. Now students are told GCSEs (all of them) are absolutely critical to university success and the first year of sixth form plunges them directly into examinations that will determine their futures. They are subject to an education system that seems to insist on instant results, as narrowly defined and inflexible as a poorly designed video game. Frankly, if they're a little impatient and demanding in return I'm not entirely surprised.

Forget the divorce, this was about money

Kathryn Bigelow, one newspaper reported, "humbled" her husband by winning the Best Director Oscar. I seriously doubt that James Cameron can be humbled so easily, but in any case he didn't seem to have noticed, greeting her victory with apparently genuine pleasure.

It was typical, though, of coverage which was outwardly pro-feminist and yet implicitly sexist, reducing Bigelow's achievement (which had nothing to do with her marriage) to a kind of Hollywood final-reel twist, in which the divorced woman pulls herself together and sticks it to her ex-husband.

That tired gender-war detail was also far less interesting than the real opposition, which was to do with audiences. In an intriguing piece in New Republic before the Oscars, Chris Orr predicted Avatar's triumph on psephelogical grounds, pointing out that for the past 20 years the highest or second-highest grossing film of the year had taken the Oscar 19 times.

He also noted that of the last 30 Oscar winners, only two had been outside the top 25 at the box office that year and none at all outside the top 50. The Hurt Locker, he pointed out – somewhat regretfully, since he loathed Avatar – was the 131st highest-grossing film of 2009.

Well, smart money isn't always right, as the other night proved. One assumes its victory will belatedly bump The Hurt Locker up the earnings tables – but rich and poor was the real story of the Best Film award, not husband and wife.

No-quibble returns? Or no-qualms fashion?

Rupert Smith's novel Man's World includes a conscience-lite character called Jonathan who treats Selfridge's menswear department as "a kind of fashion lending library", thanks to its no-quibble returns policy. He buys expensive and fashionable clothes, wears them once or twice and then returns them for something even more on trend.

This cheerfully amoral clotheshorse was the first thing thing I thought of when I saw that Asda is to introduce a 100-days no-quibble returns policy, allowing customers to exchange garments if they are not satisfied with the quality, no matter how many times they've been worn.

Apparently the company have already tested out this idea with an early trial involving school uniforms and were reassured to find that, of £9m in sales only £900 worth was returned. I do hope that their faith in human nature is rewarded but did it not occur to them that they've tested the principle on the one class of garments – uniforms – which are broadly immune to the pressures of fashion (or the dread of being seen wearing the same outfit too many times)?

In other words they're the kind of garment where you have virtually no incentive to cheat the system. I don't suppose Jonathan and his ilk will be much interested – George at Asda not having quite the label impact of the designers available from Selfridge's menswear – but I suspect the "fashion lending library" concept may be about to be brought to the masses.

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