Who would be a teenager now?

Yes, some teenagers are unruly, even violent but rather than single out those actually causing troub

For years it has been sneeringly dubbed a Mickey Mouse course, and this past week came the official confirmation - a comparison showed that, yes, indeed, a media studies A-level is marginally easier than an English A-level. Bet that wiped the smiles off the faces of all those kids who passed the course last summer, right? Ha!

Also having their smiles removed: anyone with an A-level in sociology. Yep, it turns out that sociology, compared to biology, is marginally easier, too. And maths students have nothing to grin about either - in January it was reported that this subject, considered to be the most rigorous, has been "dumbed down".

Let's face it, anyone who has been through the exam system recently has nothing to look cheery about, do they? Even if they studied biology and English, with a side order of nuclear physics, we all know that exams are easy now, and that this generation are stupid, lazy slobs capable of little better than etching their name in the top right-hand corner of the page before sitting back and watching the A grades roll in. Right?

Reading the news about the media studies A-level, I thought, as I often do: who would be a teenager now? In recent years, this group has become ever more stigmatised (the word "feral" is applied to them so often that it has almost become a synonym). Today's children are expected to work intently throughout their school lives - taking six sets of national tests if they stay on at school until 18 - yet even if they do brilliantly, their achievements are drown ed out each year by the predictable cries that exams are easy, and that it was different in our day.

While this must be demoralising if you have romped home with four As at A-level, what if you've worked your arse off and still failed? What if you are one of the 45,000 16-year-olds who leave school each year functionally illiterate and/ or innumerate? Maybe this helps explain why we have a growing population of Neets - people aged 16-24 and "not in education, employment or training". If you've failed in a system that is characterised as easy, why would you stay on?

The exam system is only one part of the problem. (And if it is getting easier, could we please just sort that out, rather than forcing children through it each year, and then laughing at them in the event that they excel?) Attitudes which would rightly be unacceptable when it comes to any other group go unquestioned when expressed towards teenagers. Shopkeepers stick up notes saying that no more than two teenagers are allowed in at a time; if they wish to enforce this, they can buy a Mosquito alarm, an "ultrasonic teenage deterrent", whose high-pitched squeal can be heard only by those under 20. Never mind that this throbbing whistle affects all children, miscreants or not - including babies and, in one reported case in Ireland, an autistic five-year-old. When the Children's Commissioner for England, Albert Aynsley-Green, called for the alarms to be banned, there was uproar at this attack on our right to protect ourselves from "hoodies".

Teenagers are characterised as drunken louts, and when the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, notes that "fewer young people are drinking, but those who are drinking are drinking more", this suggestion that a minority - not the majority - of kids has a serious problem goes unreported. Yes, some teenagers are unruly, even violent - there are unruly, violent individuals in every social group - but rather than single out those actually causing trouble, we lump them all together.

As we look for ways to protect ourselves from children and teenagers, we seem to do very little to protect them. Children are the only group that can be smacked with impunity (so long as it is their parents who smack them, and there is no noticeable bruising), which is ironic considering that, physically and mentally, children are clearly among the most vulnerable social categories.

According to Home Office statistics, more than one-third of all rapes recorded by the police (36 per cent) are committed against children under 16, and the situation doesn't look up in those final teenage years. Young women aged 16-19 are four times as likely to be raped as women in general.

Bullying remains rife, with children often subject to the sort of treatment from a vicious minority of schoolmates that would result in huge redress if it happened in the workplace. And in February, it was reported that the child murder rate has increased by a third.

The problem is that, rather than looking at this situation and noting that our children need more protection, the general response seems to be that we need protecting from them. This leaves the good, law-abiding majority of teenagers completely cut off and cast adrift, because whatever they do - whether they excel in the classroom, work hard or not, drink or not, have unprotected sex or not, make clear, moral decisions or not - they are characterised as lazy, stupid and downright dangerous. I repeat: Who would be a teen ager now?

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters