The Inside Story on UK Teenagers

23/01/2012 22:37 GMT | Updated 24/03/2012 09:12 GMT

When we say 'riot', it conjures an image of a group of people united by a common purpose, rebelling against the system, sticking it to the man, possibly to a 1970s glam-rock inspired soundtrack. Last summer's UK riots, which lasted four days, defied that premise totally. In London, economically deprived areas like Hackney and Croydon were decimated by their own young residents. Local, family owned businesses were raided. Blocks of flats were set alight. Most of us were bewildered - Who would do that to their own community?

Whilst I'd never condone the actions of the rioters, something like that was always going to happen.

A young female rioter famously told a BBC cameraman at the time "we want to show what we can do", which is of course a euphemism for 'look at us!'. The message was clear - we'd made Britain's teenagers feel undervalued for far too long and now we were in the midst of their collective temper tantrum.

When a young man or woman is getting a little rowdy in my self-esteem class, trying to impress their mates. I walk up to the individual concerned, chuck them under their little chin and say, in the sort of voice you'd usually reserve for a baby or a small puppy "aw, did you want some attention?". It silences them every time. Because of course, that's all any teenager, ultimately, wants.

My work has taken me to some of the wealthiest private schools in Britain, where the Head Boy has greeted me on arrival with a firm handshake and an offer of a tour of the hockey pitches, to some of the most deprived educational establishments in our inner cities, where students are finger-printed on arrival, and their rucksacks checked for weaponry. All the students I've encountered, regardless of gender, sexuality, race or social standing were delighted when I asked them their opinion on something.

That's my secret weapon. It doesn't matter what the subject matter is - A national news item, the new school building, what Jessie J was wearing at the MOBO Awards - I've even asked how the new iPhone works. Adding 'don't you think?' onto the end of a sentence can work wonders. Anything to make my class feel valued and appreciated.

My one hour class began simply as a 'body confidence' lesson. Body image is still at its root, but the problem is, of course, self-harm, eating disorders and body-related bullying have far more wide-reaching causes and consequences than simply body dissatisfaction.

Body insecurity, and abuse of the body using alcohol and drugs, amongst our teens are widely reported in today's media. In any typical British classroom, we're told, three students will be self-harming. Suicide is the commonest cause of death in men under 25. One in 10 young people will develop an eating disorder. These statistics paint a bleak picture, but my experience of teenagers is anything but. The students I've taught have been bright, vivacious, hopeful, interesting and creative, even those who might be described as a 'challenging'. The future of Great Britain is not broken.

The tangible, measurable issues faced by UK teenagers are symptoms, not causes. The truth is that the UK's young people are in the grips of a low self-esteem epidemic.

The popular press, it seems, are desperate for one, solitary factor we can blame. The finger has historically been pointed at parents, 'the media' and 'lack of social discipline'. Then there's Education Minister Michael Gove, who believes the solution lies in the swift sacking of that elusive, mythical beast, the 'easily identifiable and universally condemned bad teacher'.

Making my class as broad as possible, so that it deals with the management of difficult emotions and negative self-belief underlying most of the problems listed above, has certainly been shown to help. The real root 'issues' are far less easily resolved, however - An almost entirely exam-based, antiquated, education system, for starters. Whilst some educational institutions are finding ways to work around this, and successfully instill a love of learning in their students, many of the wonderful teachers we have in this country are being constrained by a curriculum designed to benefit only the most academically gifted children, and a huge proportion of young people who demonstrate immense skill and talent in other areas are left believing that they are 'stupid'.

Add to this wide-spread unemployment, which has resulted in most young people, understandably, feeling bleak and uncertain about their own futures. And a generation of parents who, well-meaningly but misguidedly, have tried to compensate for the lack of attention they're able to give their offspring in our insane, fast-paced, 24 hour culture by practically bankrupting themselves in their devotion to providing their children with all the latest material possessions.

Our teenagers, regardless of their personal financial circumstances, have xBoxes, iPods and a shiny new pair of the latest trainers. But all they really want is our time.