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Posts Tagged ‘teenagers’

Too Much Too Young

In the late 1990s, when I was 18, I sat 3 A-levels and got good grades – an A for English Literature, a B for Business Studies and a C for French. I was accepted at my first choice of university to study law and took up my place 6 weeks after getting my A-level results. My degree choice suited me and I enjoyed it. I got good grades, and graduated with a 2:1 Honours degree. I followed the degree with a one year postgraduate diploma in Legal Practice and eventually qualified as a solicitor. I didn’t do anything special, but I followed the path that my peers and I had expected and been expected to follow when we entered grammar school, and I had nothing to be ashamed of in my career. So far, so ordinary.

Here are some other facts about me.

When I was 17 I asked the nurse at the teenage drop-in clinic to prescribe the contraceptive pill for me as I had a steady boyfriend and I worried about the effectiveness of condoms. The nurse, while checking my weight and height, did a routine pregnancy test – and the line turned blue. On my 18th birthday I was 22 weeks pregnant. When I sat my A-levels I had a small baby. I took my daughter with me to collect my A-level results. When I started my degree I had a nine month old baby. When I graduated, I had a four year old and another baby. By the time I qualified as a solicitor I had three children aged 8, 4 and 1. I had divorced a bad man and married a good one and I had a cat and a mortgage. This part of my life was less ordinary.

I don’t think that teenage pregnancy is a good thing. I don’t think that it is a bad thing, either. I love my children and my husband dearly, and my life now – aged nearly 30 – is better than I could ever have dreamed of, even before that pregnancy test changed everything for me. But I cannot deny that I missed out on so much. There was no wild partying or carefree lack of responsibility for me when I was at university; I went there to study and I came home to change nappies and puree pears. On my days off I danced through a carefully choreographed cycle of toddler groups, lunches with other mums, and NCT coffee afternoons. In the evening while my daughter slept I would write up my course notes and do careful budgets with my student loan income to make sure I could afford to buy her shoes. I have never gone for after-work drinks in a sunny beer garden with my colleagues, or hopped on a train on a Friday night for an impromptu weekend away with a friend or lover. From the moment I left home (26 weeks pregnant, 18 years old) I have always, unrelentingly, been responsible for someone other than myself, and that responsibility is tiring.

That is what young girls need to know. They don’t need to know that teenage pregnancy doesn’t equal dropping out, dole queues and cold council flats; it doesn’t have to, of course. But it does mean a head that is never free from niggling worry, even in a nightclub queue on a rare night out (trust me). It means years of not reading a book from cover to cover, or having a lazy lie-in, or spending your last tenner of the month on a halterneck from TopShop. And that is why articles such as Amelia Gentleman’s in the Guardian (or, certainly, the study that it cites), worry me. I can agree that teenage pregnancy is often “more opportunity than catastrophe” – it has been for me certainly and for many others, and honestly, I am grateful this is recognised these days. But it’s a lonely road too, and perhaps one of the biggest problems with the whole situation is that many teenage mums don’t have the maturity to imagine the future properly or think beyond the prospect of a sweet little baby to love. I don’t think I did.

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The Lost Generation

“Being unemployed is a very emotional time. You lose your confidence, you don’t think anyone wants you….”

Hearing this kind of thing said about unemployment is not uncommon, but it somehow sounds worse coming from the mouth of Leah who is aged just 19. Leah was part of a Woman’s Hour Special yesterday that looked at youth unemployment and questioned whether we were creating a ‘Lost Generation’ in our 16-24 year olds.

The young people interviewed on Woman’s Hour talked about feeling depressed, de-motivated, getting a hard time from parents and about feeling rejected. Martina Milburn, chief executive of The Princes Trust is reported in The Guardian “But this is just the start of a long and downward spiral, which all too often leads to crime, homelessness or worse. Only by stopping young people falling out of the system can we rescue this lost potential and save the economy billions each year.”

All the major political parties are (rightly) taking this seriously – the Conservatives propose an employee led apprenticeship scheme, Labour last month announced the first bid to create 47,000 jobs and Nick Clegg recently tweeted: “90 day guarantee:if u don’t have job after 3 months, we’ll guarantee training, internship or further study. Boost places at Colleges too”.

What I don’t understand is why do all the projects for unemployed young people start once they have been unemployed for 6 months, or three months or even one month? Why not start this in schools? Is setting young people up with the skills they need to find work not one of the roles of education? It’s all very well having schemes to teach young people both the hard and soft skills involved in finding work, but why wait until they are depressed and de-motivated or worse, turned to crime or become homeless?

Why is it that the focus of education is still about passing exams? Surely, some time could be taken in the last year or two for work based experience – and I don’t mean two weeks messing about, I mean proper work based training one afternoon a week or something. This would not only help school aged children to gain the skills they need in employment, it would also help employers to realise that not all young people are hopeless and unreliable.

Being unemployed at this crucial stage has lifetime effects on earning potential, especially for young people who are leaving school without continuing into Higher Education and it is young women who have no or few qualifications that this is hitting hardest. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the emphasis needs to always be on encouraging young people to continue in education – some people aren’t suited to it, and there will always be jobs that need doing by people who aren’t necessarily qualified to their eyeballs, and these young people need practical experience. Besides, graduate jobs are also being hit hard by recession.

I don’t think this would be useful only to students who are looking for work at 16. With the average student racking up £26,000 worth of debt while they complete their studies, work based training would help them to be able to work during the holidays or have a part time job during term time.

I really can’t see how taking away some of the academic side of schooling and put towards more practical skills – writing a CV, interview techniques, teaching young people the importance of being reliable – and setting them up in a work based environment so they gain experience would be a waste. Young people need these skills in a competitive market, and it’s not fair to blight them with long term unemployment when it affects them for the rest of their lives.

Education should be about so much more than league tables and passing exams, it should be about helping children to grow up and hold their own in an adult world. And it seems a much harder adult world now than ever.

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Snogging, swearing and smoking

It might shock you to hear that I was once a teenager – and not a particularly pleasant one at that. I was prone to hanging about with not much to do, snogging, swearing and smoking. So WHY do teenagers upset my nearly-middle-age sensibilities when I see them now? None of the teenagers I see are particularly scary, snogging and swearing seem to be every bit as exciting as they were twenty years ago, but hardly any of them smoke!
My Dad, who has been a teacher in secondary schools for at least forty thousand years suggests that if you come across teenagers, the best thing to do is (brace yourself) treat them like people, be just as polite as you would be if you met someone of any other age, and shockingly, they will be polite back. And they mostly are.
Since my father made this revelation to me a few years ago, several of my friend’s children have grown from little poppets into little near-adults. None of them seem THAT bad, they all seem like perfectly pleasant human beings with good manners, an interest in the world around them and ambitions. So why are they being thrown out of shopping centres, told what to wear, and why aren’t there facilities for them as part of mainstream society? Surely our job is to guide them into being responsible adults and how are they going to learn that if they are excluded from many ‘adult’ activities?
Unicef UK are hoping to raise £55m (I know!) over 5 years for their ‘Put it Right’ campaign to tackle this problem. Local Authorities will be given a ‘Child Friendly Status’ which will include things such as welcoming breastfeeding in cafes, stopping shops from unfairly banning teenagers and encouraging teenage participation in the community by advertising events for teenagers such as juggling workshops. The more serious side will be working with Local Authorities to make sure that children’s views are properly considered when taking a child into care and letting people know about successful teenagers living amongst them and not just the ones causing havoc.
I do think it’s vital that we improve the profile of teenagers, it’s important that they feel they are contributing to the world we live in. It’s essential that they are engaged in the community and feel supported by it. In a few short years, these teenagers will be adults carving their own way in the world, surely they need to be secure in a world that welcomes them and invests in them? Especially as it’s not long before they’ll be supporting us through our retirements – I don’t fancy being moved on from the bench when I rest my arthritic bones, have nowhere to park my mobility car and be told to take my purple hat off!

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