The Cast of Culprits Part 1: The Students.

January 9, 2007

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!”

2 Kings 2:23 (NIV)

The young are in character prone to desire and ready to carry any desire they may form into action. Of bodily desires it is the sexual which they are most disposed to give way, and in regard to sexual desire they exercise no self-restraint. They are changeful too and fickle in their desires, which are as transitory as they are vehement; for their wishes are keen without being permanent, like a sick man is prone to hunger and thirst…….if the young commit a fault it is always on the side of excess and exaggeration for they carry everything too far, whether it be love or hatred or anything else. They regard themselves as omniscient and are positive in their assertion; this is, in fact, the reason for their carrying everything too far.

Aristotle writing 2330 years ago as cited in Beck et al (2003)

I now intend to explore the individuals that make up our education world. First on the list are the people it’s all about: the students. To listen to some teachers you’d think today’s children were without historical precedent. However a quick look at the quotes at the start of this entry reveals that feckless and delinquent youths have been around for as long as written records survive. Even distinctly modern problems, like rising divorce and illegitimacy, are unlikely to result in stresses on family life greater than some other eras (such as those during the world wars) have dealt with.

There are however factors that make recent generations of students stand out.

Age. There is a historical process by which the maximum age of the school population seems to be rising. It is only since 1973 that the school leaving age has been 16, and since then the law and regulations have changed further pushing the point at which students leave later and later in the year. There is now talk of raising the leaving age further. This process means that students are trapped in school to a later and later age. This has massive consequences for discipline – effective punishment is more difficult with 16 year olds than with 11 year olds. I am sure that I am not the only teacher that shudders when the media report suggestions that the school leaving age be raised to 18.

Attitudes Towards Knowledge. We now have developed a generation with very little respect for expertise. It is quite normal for adults, let alone students, to give no regard to expert knowledge. Look around you in the media for examples of

  • Painstakingly compiled statistics being dismissed as lies (almost any Government statistic is dismissed as fraudulent despite the mass of expert statisticians employed by the civil service). The fact that the methodology is publically known, the shortcomings openly stated and the research extensive does not stop people dismissing crime or unemployment figures as complete invention.
  • Journalists interviewing other journalists about highly complex topics.
  • The blurring of the boundaries of expertise (eg. biologists commenting on religion, linguists commenting on politics, scientists commenting on ethics).
  • Opinions voiced by those with no expertise of a subject appearing alongside the opinions of experts. (“Next we’ll be discussing the role of religion in society with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Shannon from Girls Aloud”).
  • The use of Vox Pops, i.e. interviews with random members of the public, as journalism. I can’t be the only person to react badly when a news broadcaster says “and now to find out what you think….”. I know what I think, thank you very much, I’d like to know what somebody better informed than me thinks if it’s all the same to you.

Now secondary teachers should be subject experts (degree level with a decent classification) imparting knowledge to the young. What hope do they have of gaining respect for that knowledge if expert knowledge is considered by society to be on a par with uninformed opinion? It is perhaps an irony that teachers who are so shocked that students don’t respect their expertise are as equally likely as others in society to disrespect the expertise of others.

Personal Responsibility. Children today live in a world where the traditional consequences of selfish, inconsiderate or even harmful actions have been neutered. The political right don’t hesitate to draw our attention towards the idea that the welfare state has helped save the poor from their own fecklessness. However even

for those not on the brink of poverty there are obvious signs that misdeeds and the price of misdeeds and misdemeanours no longer need be paid:

  • Shame. Behaviour that would once have scandalised communities is now beamed directly to our houses in soap operas and reality game shows.
  • Blame. A wide array of newly discovered syndromes (like Oppositional Defiance Disorder) has, along with the pervasiveness of pop psychology explanations of human behaviour, let it be known that people in general, and children in particular, are not to be considered to be in control of their own actions.
  • Conscience. An emphasis on feelings, have informed us all that feeling bad about doing bad things, is a psychological problem rather than a moral one.
  • Moral authority. Those institutions that might once have been seen as embodying morality such as churches, teachers, or the police have been either sidelined for being no longer relevant, or reformed so as to be less judgemental.
  • Commitment. Personal integrity is no longer held to be important. The most obvious example of this is “no fault divorce” whereby individuals can arrange to stop keeping their promises without any suggestion that this suggests bad faith on anybody’s part.
  • Punishment by parents. A no doubt well intentioned effort to stop abuse has left parents absolutely baffled as to how to chastise their children. Parents feel that a smack is assault, that disapproval is blackmail and that withdrawing treats is neglect.
  • Punishment by the police. I hate to think what would happen to a police officer that gave a naughty child a clip round the ears in public. For details of the morally neutral, non-judgemental character of modern policing methods see Copperfield (2006)

Without these forces then the pressure on individuals to take responsibility for their actions is far less. This is not just a moral problem, the ability to take responsibility for what is happening around you has also been identified as a key attribute for being effective in achieving personal and professional goals (Covey).

Now combine these three factors together and before we even start looking at the other players in education, there are reasons to suggest that the culture that influences students outside of school is often not one that equips the young with the values that will enable them to acquire the full benefits of full time education.


Beck, John and Earl, Mary, Key Issues In Secondary Education, Continuum 2003
Copperfield, David, Wasting Police Time, Monday Books, 2006
Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press, 1989
Lowe, Chris, Pupils, Their Education and the Law, The Questions Publishing Company, 1999


  1. Your education articles are as good as any in the blogosphere (both those about policy and your comments on life in the classroom) ; have you ever thought they deserve a wider audience than Infet which is patronised mostly by teachers ?

    Even if you just copy them on a blogger or blogspot site ?

    I know this sounds like a belly-crawl but it’s a genuine opinion !

  2. I think the statistics are fraudulent ; it’s not the *analysis* of them that’s the problem, it’s the raw data.

    As an example, no-one would dispute that A-Level and GCSE pass rates and grades have gone up a great deal.

    However, this is useless because the data is not remotely comparable from (say) 1980 or even 1990.

    Much of the ‘statistics’ are like that ; Copperfield (excellent man) will tell you that the Cop statistics are managed by things like administrative detections, dodgy TICs and so on.

  3. That’s the trouble, Paul: most of the insiders end up preaching to the converted. I don’t know whether the ignorance of parents and the wider community is wilful or not, but it seems to me that parents whose kids are doing well (i.e. coasting through the pathetically simple courses and exams) are determined to find no fault and parents wose kids aren’t blame the teachers for not liking their spawn.

  4. That’s the advantage of the more visible blogs.

    People like Frank Chalk (Teacher), David Copperfield and Inspector Gadget (Police) and Dr Crippen (Health) are getting their word out there. It seems a shame that such an excellent writer (I’m not him, honest) doesn’t have a much wider readership.

    It might be a struggle as they are (unconciously) battling the various PR departments but the message is getting there – and they are all giving out very similar messages.

    1) the service in question is not as Govt pretends, it’s pretty rubbish in fact
    2) this is down to stupid rules and
    3) pointless self perpetuating bureaucracy and
    4) mad government targets

    5) which are blatantly fiddled
    6) by managers toadying to government who care about nothing else
    7) virtually all the ‘front liners’ agree

    the one real missing profession that I’d like to see is that of Social Worker. (there used to be a column written by a “Mary Bell” (pseud) in the Grauniad ; but that was ages ago)

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