Dear Sir,

As a teacher with nearly twenty years of experience from reception up to GCSE level, I have had a strong vantage point from which to observe the social changes which appear to be becoming more and more prevalent, making each passing year a more difficult experience for people in my profession. Each year it seems I find myself saying ‘I’ve never felt so tired’ and each year it seems it is true. I think there is perhaps something fundamentally wrong in our approach to mass education that is undermining the possibilities of ‘community’ life and the perpetuation of a healthy society.

Perhaps the most potent buzzword in the explanation of pupil resistance to a positive ethic is ‘peer pressure’. Pupils of middle school age look for strong personalities and consider them as role models. In fact pupils of any age will do this, but it seems that some strong personalities of the same age group, or perhaps the age group just above, become more attractive, or more dominant in fulfilling this role. Where the younger child is more likely to look to adult leadership and approval, making the parent, the teacher and other adults such as uncles, aunts, grandparents and so on vital elements in social development, the older child and young teenager is less likely to give these such credence and looks more towards those who impress them in other ways.

If we look back through rose tinted spectacles to a village culture, that perhaps never existed, but which is illustrated in the way tribes outside the so called civilised world live and work as a community, these older children looking outside the family group for influence are able to focus on individuals of varying ages and attitudes, perhaps to young adults who have already been through the growing up process and understand some of the pitfalls and misdirected goals and can guide their young friends through troubled years. In our current culture, where pupils are herded together in year groups the strong personalities they will encounter are more likely to be in their own age group and amongst people who have not learned such lessons and cannot provide or encourage positive outcomes. Blown about by the winds of whim and social experimentation it is easy for these pupils to build up a ‘mob’ identity, into which an adult, be it parent, extended family, youth worker or teacher, cannot effectively exert influence. By our very disapproval of the strong personalities that we see as seditious we alienate ourselves further from the social focus of the pupil group. Our influence becomes even weaker.

Compounding this, in my view, is the high energy culture of disrespect that emanates from the mass media onslaught on our children’s attention. Here it is portrayed as cool to reject establishment or authoritative figures, and to trivialise and poke fun at anything not perceived to be ‘in fashion’ at the time. Programmes that pander to what children want at the expense of what they need, because they are governed by a market economy that tells them that ratings are everything and quality is a suitable lamb to sacrifice to achieve this. That is not to say that all children’s media can be tarred with the same brush. There are excellent programmes that inform, guide and show real respect for the vulnerability of this young age-group, but if you are competing with a small quiet voice in the middle of a market place filled with dubious loudly shouting peddlers of asinine and pretentious rubbish it is not surprising that all but the most thoughtful children are distracted and carried away by the hype.

The search for identity is a major focus of the teenage years. Integrity or the integration of individuals into the community requires that the individuals are happy with their own identity and how it fits in with those around them. Integration into an all age community involves struggling with the issue of the need for respect for all people regardless of age in order that a community is mutually supportive. The all age community provides a far richer and safer environment in which to struggle. By herding children together in same age group masses the nature of the community into which they are trying to integrate, to develop integrity within, is itself far more dangerous and unpredictable. Pupils will successfully integrate into the community they find themselves, but it is no surprise that this peer based community develops in its own microcosmic way, excluding the wealth of positive influence that exists beyond its focus, into groups of young adults, used to ignoring authority, or actively encouraged to undermine it, and leading each other into excesses such as drug abuse, binge drinking and antisocial behaviour.

Further frustrating the development of healthy communities in rural areas is the practice of bussing pupils to school. Large numbers of our young people have been effectively removed from community of their village and some never really reintegrate into that society. They lose ownership of their locality, cannot identify with a village community that they hardly meet, and find themselves in a world dominated by those who know nothing of their own community and haven’t time to find out. The adults in school, supposedly ‘in loco parentis’ are already at a disadvantage in building relationships, whilst parents at home feel isolated from the education process, unable to achieve the level of unofficial communication that was available at the primary school gate.

As soon as the parental figure, be it parent, or those ‘in loco parentis’, has been effectively removed as a focus for social influence on the young then parental example and the attempt to understand it is also lost. The result is that when our young people reach the age of procreation their own parenting skills are inadequate and leave them unable to cope with the pressures of normal child development. Arguments lead to parental separation and the loss of trust in the adult figure that further compounds the exclusion of adult influence on same age peer group society. It is ludicrous to suggest that the education service can compensate for this by teaching parenting skills. Parenting for the natural human family is a two to one continuous day to day experience, perhaps in the case of multiple births a two to two, three or even four, which becomes a handful! How can it be adequately addressed on the basis of one to thirty in an hour a week if you are lucky?

Part of the establishment now openly ridiculed as a source of wisdom by this market centred society is the religious groups. Churches, and although I have little experience of them, mosques and other religious centres, provided a focus for community that encompassed all age groups. They seek to actively support all regardless of age in the search for meaning and ‘integrity’ as part of a supportive community. They provided, at best, a model for society based on love and understanding into which the aspiration to integrate was healthy for all. Whether or not the stories and doctrines at the centre of the religion were accepted literally, figuratively or even at all, the church provided an all age forum in which society could develop in a civilised way.

The television has largely replaced the church or other social forums in terms of the time people spend outside their working hours. It is a mixed blessing, a double edged sword, providing education, social insights (but only into other people’s societies), art and culture. It could do so much to raise awareness for the need to integrate society as a whole and break the peer group strangleholds, but being market led it will not, because these groups are the most effective targets for marketing and exploitation. By perpetuating the marketing to these groups we perpetuate the existence of these groups at the expense of the integrity of society.

I don’t know the answers, but unless ‘community’ can cease to be a buzzword and begin to re-establish itself at local levels, supporting and enriching family life, I can’t see how things will improve. The very existence of civilisation is at stake!

Yours faithfully,

R.G.Kirby, North Devon.