Partly because I was always being asked whether my books Junk and Doing it were autobiographical, I started to write a memoir some years ago on my own teenage years, 14 - 19.

I was expecting it to be a fairly unpleasant task. Teenagers, as everyone knows, are nasty pieces of work - arrogant, spotty, ill tempered, unpredictable and generally unlikeable. Even their parents find them difficult to stomach. Fortunately for the rest of us, they are usually too cowardly to give other people a hard time, except when they're drunk or stoned, which is as often as they can get the money to pay for it.

I remembered my teen years as being one long crises of confidence, punctuated by a series of failures - a failure to get my hands on enough girls, drugs or go far enough with them when I did; a failure to make enough friends - and no really good ones at all. A failure, in fact, to be good at anything, even, or perhaps particularly, at enjoying myself.

As I got older the list of failures only increased. I'd failed at school, failed to appreciate my parents or to capitalise on the advantages I'd been handed on a plate. I was clumsy, lacking in confidence, ugly and graceless. That, I think, is the worst and most common teen failure of all - the failure to be graceful, in body, spirit and mind.

And I'm not the only one, am I? Of all the many people I've asked about their teen years, only a handful claim to have enjoyed them. Teen angst is an act of life. You, me, our children, and as far as we know, our grandchildren and their children as well, have and will all suffer and be miserable during these most important years of life. Teenage angst has been a great source for artistic endeavour over the past fifty years or more. Rock n roll, of course, was all about the stresses of teenage life. Teenage fiction would probably not exist without it. My own books, such as Lady: My Life as a Bitch, Junk and Doing It, have all in some way taken their inspiration from teenage angst. And yet both YA (young adult) literature and modern popular music are of the modern era. The very concept of being a teenager is a thoroughly modern invention - no one ever heard of them before 1950-something. It begs the question - was it always like this? Does human history down the ages echo with cries of existential teenage pain? If so - why is it so little recorded?

The fact is, there is a good deal to enjoy about being a teenager. Sexual awakening - come on, what could be better? When I wrote my book on teenage sexual culture, Doing It, I found as much to cherish as there was to wince at. New friendships, new freedoms, the idealism of youth. It sounds great! So why all the pain? In short - where does all that angst come from?

There's a belief, perhaps because the experience is so general, that teen angst is a biological event; unfortunate, but necessary. Not much point in trying to alleviate it, is there, when it's going to be like that anyway? But what if it's not? Suppose it's cultural? Suppose we do it - to our own children, year after year, generation after generation. If that could be shown, how far would you be prepared to stick your neck out and treat your child sufficiently differently to make a difference to the sum total of human happiness - to your child's happiness, and to the happiness of any children in your care? Imagine it - a word full of happy, angst-free young people! Is such a thing possible? Surely we'd all vote with our feet if it was so.

Is it any wonder that modern teenage literature sells so much better in fantasy than in realism - when real life is so stressful? One thing you can be sure of as well, as we all watch the world of work get increasingly busy and hard on the nerves - when young people leave school, already exhausted from being mentally hag-ridden for by their elders for fourteen years - it's certainly not something restful they'll be moving on to.

As a teacher, perhaps of young people, would you be prepared to change your working habits, perhaps even your job, in an effort to help stop perpetuating the endless worry, strife and unhappiness that we deliberately bring down on the innocent heads of generation after generation of young adults? It's my belief that teachers, even more than parents, are implicated in causing unhappiness in our young adults. In one word, here's why.


Let's take a moment to look at teenagers and consider what they are, what they're doing - what the biological and cultural need for them might be - and compare that with what school does. We will see that these two areas are at hopeless odds with one another. Perhaps, by addressing it directly, it may be possible to change this deplorable state of affairs.

Let's begin right at the beginning and admit for starters that if you're going to make people jump through academic hoops, ages 14 - 16 are the very worst times to pick, period. I can think no more inappropriate age. Anyone who has done any studying knows that it gets infinitely easier as you get older, and please don't flatter yourself by imagining this is down to the fruits of hard work and the accumulation of knowledge with age. Our brains are simply not well wired for that sort of work in those mid-teen years. Ability to concentrate, not to mention having a clearly defined direction in life, are all over the place until about 18, when it begins to settle down.

So why on earth do we pick 14 - 16 to administer this admittedly necessary process? Getting kids to sit for hours studying at that time of life is a simple attempt at cultural control of a difficult time of life. There's no developmental reason for children to take these kinds of tests at that kind of age. Even in our own culture, that takes such pains to provide no alternatives for teenagers BUT school, it's not really necessary. It's a well kept secret in England that you can leave school, pass an infinitely easier access course at age nineteen and go to university as a mature student with better grants and a far higher possibility of success. All you have to do is leave school as soon as possible. It's a secret kept by teachers and parents from young people, almost to man and woman - presumably from a fear that they'll all jump up and go off on some hideous teenage rampage, due to our own failure to supply them with anything better to do.

Perhaps we want them to suffer. We did - and look what it did for us...

School itself needs a root and branch reform. Thirty odd hours of compulsory learning every week, little or no choice of subjects, lasting for fourteen years? It suits some people, I guess. I'd personally be prepared to kick anyone who wanted to do it to me in the teeth. No wonder the phrase, "best years of your life" is such a joke. And the truly horrible thing is, it could be so different. It could be so fulfilling. If only we would tailor school and teenage lives to their own needs, rather than those of an increasingly competitive society, with an ever more voracious appetite for a better trained, more amenable, flexible and hard-working product - what would we find out about ourselves and our young people then?

Teenagers are learners by their nature, but not in the form of English or biology A levels. There are melting pots, catalysts, all about finding out links for themselves, experimenting, developing.  As well as the obvious need to prepare for the future, they need to live for now and find out who they are and what they want. OK - we all know it’s not going to happen. Our whole economic structure depends on a tightly controlled young product coming out the back end of a highly focussed education system in nice, neat coils that employers can easily evaluate and process on. But since it's New Year, let's take the time out to wonder how the school day, and the school year come to that, would be organised if we were really trying to optimise the abilities and talents of young people, maximising happiness, personal development and learning potential, instead of focussing on those oh so valuable employable skills.

Here's my suggestion for a kick off.

  1. The school day needs to be kept down to a maximum of 20 hours a week. No one, even adults can concentrate for much longer that. Difficult subjects like maths, science and so on, should not be taught after 11am in the morning, by law.
  2. The school day should start at 10.30. This practise is already implemented in a number of schools. Teenage brains do not function well first thing in the morning.
  3. All schools should serve a decent breakfast. There should be a financial incentive for eating it. The recent innovation of paying people to attend school is a good one. If we're not going to let people work, it's the least     we can do. A great many problems we have with young people come from keeping them on short supply of money.
  4. A great deal of the money currently spent on "education" should be spent on other activities - sport and art, of course, but also music - young people should be given an allowance each month for music, art and literature of their own choice. They are the future, not you, and believe me, they are far more likely to know which way the wind is blowing on that account. I would also suggest they be sent on paid trips abroad, and have a system of well funded youth clubs set up across the country -  properly funded - with gaming facilities (this is an art form, I'm afraid, and it's appreciation is only going to increase) as well as a selection of any other skills members would choose to try. 

That'll do to start. I hope you don't think I'm being facetious - I'm not. We spend a fortune on education. I'm just trying to think how we might turn out better young people at the other end. Having said that, I'm a writer, not an educationalist at all. Any other suggestions very welcome.

Melvin Burgess

Check out our BritLit kits for teachers, based on stories by Melvin:

Coming Home

Whose face do you see?

Billy Elliot



I loved your ideas and your text. In fact, if you don't mind, I'll be soon using it in class. But, do admit, it's rather utopian. I mean, there's no way I can change things, being a teacher in a state school. I try to change a lot in my classes: my methods or strategies, the materials I use, the way I teach, interact and work WITH them... that's got to be new and challenging every day. Boredom and repetition are to be avoided. One has to be on the look out for whatever may interest them all the time and use our own experience as a teenager and the experience we get from our own kids to deal with them in a way they will appreciate and respond to. But there's nothing I can do about timetables, curricula...
Still I'd like to say that your books have often helped get their attention, as I'm sure this text will. Thank you.

Interesting article. It's worth remembering that it was the economic powerhouse Prussia who first introduced compulsory education  -- and they didn't do so in order to stretch and develop children's minds. They wanted a docile mass of conforming young people who would enter the workforce and fulfil the needs of the state. The English word kindergarten comes from the German because that's where they started -- in 1840. The word (literal translation 'children's garden') gives us a clue as to their original purpose: children were to be 'cultivated' like plants.

First of all congratulations on a wonderful piece. I found it to be laser accurate, on the button, and full of insight. I couldn't have put it better myself...except for the part about hardly anyone enjoying their teenage years. I, and many of the friends I canvassed, feel that they were some of the best, most fun-filled, least stressful, lazy, hazy days of our lives...we were bullet-proof, and lucky to be here now. Maybe it comes down to socio-economic or cultural factors, who knows .Anyway, I'd also like to add that a former employer of mine, Wellington High School, in Wellington, New Zealand...implemented 10 O'clock starts for senior students about 5 years ago. The results, less sick days, reduced lateness to class, higher overall attendance, and most importantly higher grades. Say no more. Unfortunately, as a general consensus, your ideas are probably a wee bit ahead of the times...though times they are a changing fast in this world today. As you allude to at the end, it's economics that rule, at the end of the day...and unfortunately the manipulations of the corporate and industrial puppet-masters. Power back to the people.

Congratulations for the article. There are, indeed, many aspects of today's education system that can be changed for the better (including some aspects regarding teachers' jobs).Beginning the school day around 10 a.m. for example, sounds like a good idea to me. However, I don't see how students could learn the "difficult subjects like maths, science and so on" which should be taught "before 11am by law" if the school day starts at 10.30.Being a teacher who cares and wants to help, I am interested in this: do you think that teenagers who perceive themselves as failures become adults with the same perception about themselves? 

.... as always.  Tend to agree with Rodica that you've set an impossible task if we took your timetabling literally.  But I suspect we expected to follow the spirit rather than the letter of these suggestions, in which case I couldn't agree more.  There might be an interesting debate to be had as to what we might expect teenagers to do with their time, in a way that is useful to them and builds on what would help them later on, if school were to be taken out of the picture for a few years.  By school, I think I imagine referring to the knowledge cramming, exam-led factories that we currently give that name.  What creative alternatives could we dream up? 

Interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed and concur with your thoughts. In fact I have had many of these thoughts myself. And as you are suggesting, I acted on them. I left school after year 10 (when legal in Australia). However, I didn't leave with an ambition of changing the way things are, I left to surf everyday rather than be at school everyday. Perhaps this is because I'm selfish and cynical and believe changing the way things are is impossible due to a number of reasons including money and normality, but perhaps i had the thoughts you've written about because I'm selfish and cynical and realised there is something better so I went and got it.  

 I suppose the general consensus here is that, yes, isn't it a shame, it's a shame, but nothing is going to change. I was fascinated to learn that Prussia was the first to introduce compulsory schooling, and for the same reasons we have it now - to produce a reliable and satisfactory work force to supply industry. It's perhaps worth bearing in mind that that's not such a bad thing in itself - after all, schools have made a pathway for many, many people out of poverty. Fortunately there is still a cross over between equipping individuals with the the skills society requires of them and fulfilling your own personal development. The problem is that with modern techniques, and increasing competition in the workplace, that overlap is becoming smaller and smaller. For that reason, I think it is worthwhile seriously considering the possibility that things can change - perhaps not as much as I was suggesting, but to some degree, It would be a very sad day if education policy makers managed to produce the "perfect" syllabus, with no wasted time whatsoever just to explore where thinking can lead you.  I'd be interested in knowing how far far people think things can be realistically changed ...  Finally, I'd like to acknowledge that although the overall drive of education is more and more to towards training than to the intellectual blossoming of individuals, it's still the case that teachers can make a huge difference to individuals as they go through the system. It's not enough of course, but when the syllabus seems to be taking up every minute of every lesson, it's worth bearing in mind that almost everyone I've spoken to who has achieved anything intellectually, remembers the teacher or teachers who set them on their course, or lit a fuse somewhere that carried them forward ...  

Your text TEEN ANGST is of a great interest in the way you stress the importance and role of school in teenagers' lives.
School is , by its own nature conservative and slow and sometimes has difficulties on trying to keep pace with cultural, social, scientific and political evolution and in understanding progress and changes.
But, in my point of view,  school can also be friendly, progressive in methods and approaches, promoting social integration and creativity and helping young people to face reality and intervene, as well as developing cultural, social and scientific projects.
I loved school! By the time I lived in Mozambique. It had creepers which flowers (with a kind of syrup) and guavas.
But I also know how school can be frustrating and painful.
Society should discuss the role of school more actively.
There have been so different schools : from the corporal punishment to Summerhill.
We have positive examples in our countries , but also some negative ones.
And you are right , Melvin! Governments spend a lot of money in Education and the results are most of times poor.
Greet you
Lisete (I and my students have welcomed you and Fitch at Escola Secundária de Miraflores in Lisbon. It was a privilege.)

I feel like sharing my frustration today, so, beware, I may be too radical, I may regret it tomorrow... but today was one of those days I wish I had stayed home with a cold. Why do we force kids to be in school when they do not want to be in school, at least not following this type of curriculum? Why can't we have A classes where everyone wants to learn and is willing to respect the teacher? What is the point of preparing your classes always using new, interactive, appealing strategies when some even refuse to read? Why do you have to spend so much time telling some kids to shut up, behave, do the task, not bother the others, sit properly..., skipping on important parts of the lesson that the rest of the class would have gladly followed? Why do we have to let down the ones who like us and want to learn to focus on those who dislike everything about school? And no, sometimes it's not a question of having some Freedom-writers-wannabes that you're dismissing. No, they simply don't care and their families don't care and have never taught them the value of respect and hard work. What should the system do about them?


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