All too often the default position of our society to young people is to regard them as a problem and burden. We view younger people so much as a problem about which ‘something must be done’, that one would think none of us had ever been young ourselves.
At times it seems like none of us as adults appears to remember times when we had strayed too close to going off the rails, or done things that perhaps we shouldn’t have. In the media, the word “youth” is most often heard proceeded with the definite article followed by the words charged, detained or arrested. Too many children in Ireland are not in a position to avail of the educational opportunities afforded to them, due in large part to a history of disadvantage that spans the generations. We, as a society, must raise both our own expectations of our young people and their expectations of themselves; we need to stop seeing them as a problems and starting seeing them as we once were. Often ignored, under-appreciated, bored and lacking a challenge.
We need to provide accessible low cost venues in which young people can feel safe to simply hang with simple passive adult supervision, far too often the few places that young people have to meet in are available only at a prohibitive cost. Anyone who has travelled beyond these shores will have experienced the greater resources devoted to challenging their young people and which occupy their time, it is almost as if we as a nation had so long gotten used to have so many young people that it matter not what would happen to them.
Ending Disadvantage through Education
A quality education is the proverbial silver bullet where ensuring social mobility and removal of disadvantage is concerned. John Lonergan, former prison governor, has long preached that in many poorer parts of Dublin, in particular, and in urban Ireland generally, a young person was significantly more likely to have end up under his charge in Mountjoy than to have attended any one of the 3rd level institutions around the city.
We must be prepared for a long term effort to tackle this, breaking the culture of a poverty of aspiration that condemns too many children before they are even weaned.
Specific measures we should look to support are
• Age appropriate psychological services need to be available as part of the educational program and ready where needed. This has to involve more than mere diagnosis of problems to the provision of programmes which address the problems when they are identified.
• Support has to include efforts outside of the school day and even the school year. Projects that enable homework clubs to operate, or summer camps for hard pressed parents who have to leave the home to work.
• In the most disadvantaged areas we must aim to have smaller class sizes than is the norm.
• There should be better linkage between the public library system and the schools, fostering a love of books and reading pays off over the course of a lifetime and provides a solid foundation that can be revisited if the young person goes off track.
• We have to liaise more with parents and extended family to encourage the right attitudes to education within the home.
• Basic nutrimental requirements* in the most disadvantaged areas could be provided at primary and secondary schools at relatively low cost. Providing a breakfast and lunch in these cases might be the difference between someone being a fully engaged member of society or a high cost drain on resources later in life
• More integration between the social services and the supports offered for schools.
• We have to support those who find completing school a challenge because of circumstances beyond their control.
*(minor curiosity but I was actually one of those children from whom Margaret Thatcher snatched the milk)
Giving Confidence to young people through Self Expression
We need to equip our young people with the skills necessary to be able to express themselves, to be able to make the most of their talents and to learn the lessons of self assurance and good character that comes from working with others. Many of the problems that young people are faced with stem from an inability to express the frustration that comes from passing through that stage in life of being not quite being a child any longer but not yet an adult. We have all gone through it yet we behalf as if we shouldn’t do anything to minimise the problems associated with it.
Sport, artistic expression through music, dance, sculpture or other art forms, and online gaming can offer many young people valuable lessons in structure, discipline, self control, and acting as part of a team. Through the lessons learned they can exercise more control over problems such as obesity, inappropriate self image and develop much needed confidence.
This does not necessarily have to be part of the school program; indeed it could be more beneficial if it was to take place outside the regular school day and involved the promotion of greater mixing amongst our young people from various schools and backgrounds.
We need to broaden the range of activities available to our young people,
• More structured time outside of core school hours for Physical activity.
• Offer a wide variety of activities to students such as gymnastics and athletics.
• The uptake of team sports by female students in particular should be encouraged.
• As part of the renewal of our school building stock we should ensure gyms and indoor facilities are built for every school.
Sponsorship from the private corporate sector might be forthcoming to support some of these initiatives but we need to ensure we retain the whip hand in any arrangements we might reach with them.
In our civil society we lack any formal rite of passage into the adult world, in which those who were up to then mere dependents and children in the eyes of the law and wider society take on the responsibilities and rights of citizenship. People simply go from being a child one day one day to an adult the next, or rather they don’t. Instead we have various ages and rituals of becoming an adult. Ages of consent for sex, for getting credit cards, drinking or driving cars. These are all haphazard yet none that are common to all adults. In all the talk at times of having a citizenship process for new comers to Ireland, we never think to do the same for our own new adult citizens.
I am pretty open-minded about what form this ritual should take, an exam or similar would seem to send out the wrong sort of message. Perhaps we should settle for a simple public pledge that you will seek to do right by the other members of the society that you are becoming a member of and it could be taken at a time of their choosing once you were 16/18. And only after making this pledge would you be issued with a provisional driver’s licenses and ID to allow you buy alcohol.
I also believe that we might benefit from having more of a gap between secondary level education and third level.