I visited a Norwegian secondary school a couple of years ago and met a young man who had been identified as having profound and multiple emotional, physical and behavioural difficulties. In the summer, as part of his school day, this teenager would go swimming, cycling and climbing; in the winter, he went skiing. He had full-time support from a social worker and clearly responded positively to this active school life. It seemed brilliant.
But then we discovered that he never did any of this activity with other young people – he was always alone with one or two adults. He wasn’t even based in the secondary school and had a room in the attached primary school because it was more convenient for his equipment. His curriculum was entirely different to his peers' too. The professionals told us that these practical constraints kept him separated, but the school knew his peers would not want him around either. “They don’t have that much empathy for him", we were told.
This is a very common argument about disabled pupils. We can include them when they are young but as they get older it gets harder and harder. Partly the argument is about exams, partly it is about the curriculum, but ultimately it is about teenagers being less empathetic than other human beings.
Is friendship a special issue?
Teenagers are often presented as being self-obsessed. They are only really interested in their peers and what their peers think. It is something inherent in being that age. And if you are disabled then this leaves you out on the margins. After all, the disabled child is different, teenagers don’t like difference and so the disabled child is more likely to be avoided.
But I think we have to be really careful with this argument. I recently revisited some data about friendship from a Norwegian study by Per Frostada and Sip Jan Pijl. This study, which involved 989 children in Norwegian schools, concluded that 20% to 25% of the pupils with special needs were not socially included in their peer group.
When children nominated friends in their class, the children identified with special needs were nominated less and were far more likely to have no nominations or shared nominations of friendship. This pattern increased with age. However, in another paper on this study the researchers said this painted an overly negative picture. Most of the children who were identified with special needs had still nominated some friends and reported not feeling isolated.
And when I went back to this data I noticed something else. Even though the percentages were smaller, there were 34 young people not identified with special needs who were friendless. Evidently, this is not simply a problem for disabled young people, it is a far wider problem for schools.
Boxed together by age
Teenage years are recognised as being particularly challenging for the health and well-being of young people and for their support within schools. The challenge escalates as they pass through secondary education. But I am convinced that the way we view people in their teens and the ways in which we educate them does little to help them move beyond these difficulties. If anything we make things worse.
Teenagers are the acceptable butt of everyone’s jokes, a secure fall-back for stand-up comedians in theatres across the nation.
Yet the stereotype at which we laugh (or sigh) merely reflects how we have brought teenagers up and schooled them. Our young people are increasingly confined in formal education, locked into year groupings. Inevitably their main point of reference is their peers.
Having age in common does not mean we have anything else in common. The development of our minds, our bodies, our life experiences, our interests and desires is not based on a calendar. We are all growing and changing in different ways, at different times and with different priorities.
Is the answer to simply open up classes to make them multi-age? I doubt it. Even at primary level, research is equivocal about this (showing there is no real advantage or disadvantage in having children from different age groups in a class together). We probably need to look beyond a single solution.
Schools need flexibility
Let’s go back to the young man in Norway. If we asked pupils and adults at a secondary school “would you like to spend a few hours a week out of school climbing or swimming or cycling?", many of them would probably say “yes”. If we were to find ways to open up the curriculum so that learners had more opportunity to explore that which was relevant and meaningful to them, how many would jump at the chance of joining in together?
Schools should have the flexibility to find ways to support the development of young people’s relationships, not only with their peers but with all of us. If they were encouraged to do so it could even help with the development of important people-skills, which are not just vital for personal well-being but are at the core of a successful economy.
This is not just about mixing up age and friendship groups, it is about finding and sharing common interests. Young people should be encouraged both to support each other and to have valuable links to those of all ages and backgrounds. After all, the notion of the teenager is our modern creation. And if we can change how it is understood and experienced we would all benefit.