Throughout history, commentators, historians and ordinary folk have said much the same things about the young – mainly about teenagers. What it basically amounts to is that each generation looks at the next, or the one two below them and sees them as ‘lucky’. They ‘don’t know what real life’s like,’ says your gran, remembering houses without inside toilets, washing machines or central heating (or, as they remember it, no heating at all, frost glistening on the insides of windows as you scrabbled for the orange and the penny at the bottom of your stocking). Young people have lots of stuff, they don’t know the value of money, they miss the best part of the day, they are always dressed wrongly and..pierced.., they bury their faces in their phones, and how much did that cost anyway….? Of course they are loved and indulged and spoiled because that’s what you do with your kids and their kids, that’s what you’re for, to give them all you never had. And yet… and yet… here we are, for the first time ever, with most parents doubting that their children will be as prosperous as they are themselves.
I gave a speech not long ago to a very distinguished group of mainly elderly people, who were very gracious as they listened to me maundering on about the state of Scottish education. One lady spoke to me at the end and took issue with a phrase I had used when I spoke of ‘an epidemic of mental illness’ which I saw as currently affecting our teenagers. She, a retired psychiatrist, said, ‘Mr Wyllie, they are not mentally ill. They are just sad. We should sympathise with their sadness, and make it clear we understand why they are sad, but we should not say they are ill.’ I’m sure that her comments could spark plenty of informed debate, but really the question is, whether our teenagers are increasingly disposed to being clinically depressed or are just sad – why has it happened?
When I was 17, I did my Highers. My Highers meant I could go to university. In my case, I chose to study English at the University of Edinburgh, and I could have got in with three B’s and a C at Higher. These days, I would have to start with 2 A’s and 2B’s in S5 and get 5 A’s at Higher by the end of S6 to have a chance. Now, the ‘we lived in a hole in the ground and ate slugs for our birthday’ generation will just say that’s grade inflation, but it’s not – it’s just more difficult to get in. Plus, they aren’t just competing for places with the kids from the school up the road, either, but with young people from all over the world, some of them arriving with large cheques.
Then I got my degree and applied for Moray House so I could teach. I did the form, and got in, and even was invited, sight unseen, to do a concurrent Diploma of Education at the university. I could have been completely unsuitable for the classroom (choruses off of ‘you were, you were’..) but, without interview, I fetched up to train as a teacher. These days, the 22 year old me would not, I suspect, even get to the interview stage of the rigorous process that prospective teaching students undergo.
Then I got my first job – a full time post teaching English and History (the latter something about which I knew, em, very little) and which was permanent subject to my completing my two probationary years. I should say, and I’m conscious of the pain this might cause young teachers today, that I was offered three jobs over the course of one week, one of them over the phone, again sight unseen. These days, teachers emerging from the extremely rigorous and challenging programme of teacher training (mine was not far off a dawdle) get a year guaranteed of probationary teaching and then are thrown onto a job market where, although we are supposed to be short of teachers, they will be lucky to get a part-time maternity cover, and then scramble for a while before finding something more secure.
At the end of each of my two probationary years, my Head of Department signed off on an A5 slip of paper, pink in colour. I still have my copies. On each of them, Tom wrote about 25 very affirmative words, and that was it – I was a teacher. These days, probationers have to keep a folio and these are signed off at the end by various staff – most of them run to a hundred pages or more.
Now, you can argue about the rights and wrongs of all this, of course you can, but is it really any wonder that some young people look into the abyss of their future, with its fractured trajectory, its mountains to climb and reclimb, and its zillion choices, all of them accessible only through complicated internet sites which often don’t load, and feel a crawling sense of despair? And all this while their lives are scrutinised at every hour through social media, not to mention the confusion wrought by Brexit, pornography and their parents who, loving them and conscious of all these stresses, ask them all the time if they are all right? It is, in truth, really a miracle that so many of them are the cheerful and resolute and warm and skilled individuals they are.
So, as another generation sit in hot school halls writing on exam scripts – funny how some things don’t change – let us consider how, in the future, we can make things easier for our harried youth. I am 62 – and I have been lucky to live my life when I did.