The sounds of the British summer holidays will soon be heard on our city streets and on the squares of our market towns. There will be laughter, raised voices, the occasional sound of breaking glass, a squeal of tyres and, later, that now-familiar type of informal community singing which is leery with booze and boredom. Some of this al-fresco misbehaviour will come from disappointed men who are startled to discover they are middle-aged, but much will involve people under 20.
Summer hits the bored teenager hard. The grown-ups have their holidays or their careers. Smaller children rest after the summer term and perhaps re-acquaint themselves with their parents. It is those in between, beyond childhood but yet to be granted full entry to the adult world, who are often left adrift. They have no work and nothing to do. Youth, hormones and boredom mix dangerously.
So the statistics just published by the charity 4Children are depressing, but hardly surprising. In a survey of 16,000 boys and girls between 11 and 16, 80 per cent said they had nothing to do outside school. Seventy per cent said they had become involved in petty criminality or anti-social behaviour. In deprived areas, 60 per cent had been victims of crime.
We can no doubt expect an imminent announcement about adolescent ennui from the new Secretary of State for Children, Families and Schools, Ed Balls. In a week-long blitz of initiatives, Balls has already committed himself to revising the curriculum, looking into after-school activities, improving discipline, accelerating the growth of city academies and examining the problem of teenage pregnancies.
His junior minister, Beverley Hughes, has promised nothing less than a 10-year youth strategy, but if her boasts about current policy towards teenagers are anything to go by – “We’ve already put £115m directly into the hands of young people,” she says – it would be unwise to expect more than generalised long-term promises and vague expressions of concern.
Declaring war on teenage boredom, after all, is not a vote-winner. Promise a Sure Start initiative for under-fives and gurgling, grateful little faces can be imagined; giving a group of awkward, spotty 15-year-olds something to do is likely to seem a less urgent social problem. The average stressed-out adult will rarely be moved by the plight of an adolescent who has too much time on his hands.
Like many parents, the Government has more or less given up on teenagers. It has decided that the years of boredom and loutishness are just a phase, something which the neighbours’ adolescents probably go through, too. It adopts a stern posture, thumps the table now and then, and hopes for the best. It has tried Asbos; it has nagged away at the idea that children should do A-levels, go to university.
Unfortunately, the neighbours’ teenagers seem to be getting on rather well. In every survey of youthful problems – drink, pregnancy, truancy, crime – British teenagers emerge with uncharacteristically high marks compared to those of other countries.
4Children has suggested that there is a need for youth centres across the country but that idea has a desperate, 1950s feel to it. Their proposal that “young mayors” should be created and given responsibility is nearer the mark, while reducing the voting age to 16 is obviously sensible.
But the teenage years have been a policy black hole for too long. As Oona King has pointed out, giving a mere 17p per person per day towards youth services is an absurdity. The problem is not simply one of crime, misery and unfulfilled potential; it bleeds into adulthood. Many wider social problems can be traced back to the mess Britain has made of leading its children into adulthood.
In the Government’s 10-year youth strategy, it would do well to treat them not so much as children with spots and hormones, but as young adults. Teenagers are subjected to the pressures and temptations of the grown-up world, to which many of them wholeheartedly respond. To give them some of the responsibilities and pressures that go with adult life would give many of them a sense of purpose, of belonging.
Those long, hot, dangerously dull summer months provide a good opportunity for a sort of part-time, voluntary national service, a time in which young people could work for charity or for enterprise, earning a qualification and useful experience for their later careers and, just as importantly, a wage which would be provided by a grateful, forward-looking government.
The idea of paying a subsidy to teenagers might make the former chancellor, now at No 10, blanch, but the alternative is more boredom, expenditure and, above all, waste. Last year, the cost of youth crime was £13bn.