Hard News by Russell Brown

291

A Real Alternative

The belief that alternative education -- the so-called school system of last resort -- is the next education sector facing a funding cut is borne out by a story in this morning's Press, Drug use by at-risk teens causes alarm.

The story claims that:

Many teenagers in the school system of last resort are smoking pot.

The high rates of drug abuse are among concerns about the alternative education system that have prompted Education Minister Anne Tolley to review its funding.

Somehow, I don't think it's likely to be reviewed upwards.

But I hope any action is more soundly based than the Press's story, which quotes the New Zealand Council for Educational Research report Background of students in Alternative Education: Interviews with a selected 2008 cohort. The story is written in such a way that it would be easy to think that the report is somehow critical of AE's role with respect to student drug use:

"For many students, an environment where drugs and alcohol are freely used was considered quite normal," the study said.

One pupil said: "My family still takes drugs; it was what I thought was normal. I got brought up around it, but it's not good because it influences me and my sister and we smoke drugs, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes."

Actually, the next sentence quoted from that student, Mere, is: "No-one ever talked to me about this before I got to AE."

Nowhere does the report suggest that drug or alcohol use is in any way associated with AE attendance. Quite the reverse.

As it happens, I recently visited an alterative education learning centre. It was a very modest space (much more so than a typical classroom), but impeccably tidy. Its walls were covered with student artworks, and with rules: very specific rules about all kinds of prohibited conduct, from bullying to cheating at games, with specific sanctions for each. It was a very well-regulated environment.

Our own family's contact with Alt-Ed has been in the home, and considerably more effective and less judgemental than some of the dealings we endured in the mainstream system. For us, these people get it. So Anne Tolley's ruminations concern me. This has never been a fashionable service in the education sector -- Labour effectively froze its funding from 2000 on -- but, as the NZCER report plainly demonstrates, it is deeply valued by its users.

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We're exploring a related theme in this week's Media7 programme: the deal that youth get in the media. Most days you'll be able to find some sort of alarm being sounded about young people -- youth crime, young people and drugs, teenagers and cars. What do young people think about the picture of themselves they see reflected back in the media?

This isn't new: media panics about young people go all the way back to the Mazengarb Report. And I recall being mildly appalled when the Herald relentless negative hand-wringing series 'Our Children' got a special Qantas award in the late 90s. It sometimes seems to me that we should sometimes just leave our children alone; or at least cut them some slack.

We have two panels lined up. On is a "young leaders" panel: Young Greens leader Zach Dorner; Eva Maria, the author of You Shut Up a guide to parenting teenagers; and Tai Ahu, who is studying law, history and Maori language.

The other is a young media people panel: Imogen Neale of the Manukau Courier; John Hartevelt of the Christchurch Press (coincidentally, the author of the story I've looked at above) and freelance journalist Jehan Casinader.

If you'd like to join us for from 5pm Wednesday for the recording at TVNZ, hit "Reply" and let me know.

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