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Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Punish them? Yes. But if we don't listen to them we punish ourselves.

 There has got to be a process over the next few weeks of getting those who have looted, burned and destroyed our cities to talk. They need to explain to us not only why they thought they could act in the way that they did but, more importantly, why they thought they should act in the way that they did. The long-term solution to what I would call the greatest sociological crisis this country has seen in many years lies in making everyone feel like society and community has something to offer them. Because they don't at the moment.

My personal feeling is that these riots have been gestating for years, and I would like to run through how. Regular readers of my writings will attest that I am no bleeding heart liberal and I am also no foaming-mouthed conservative either. The reality is though that we need to look at ideas from all parts of the ideological spectrum. At the moment, too many people I am seeing in the media, on social networks and just talking to are closing their ears and singing "la-la-la" as loud as they can when certain arguments are aired. I think this is dangerous.


It was one of the most haunting conversations of my life. I was in the internal suspension room at my old school and a by was telling me about his brother's release from Feltham Young Offenders' institute. I asked him what it had been like and he said "seriously Sir, my brother loved it." "Loved it?" I asked. "Get this right, it was the first time in his life that he didn't have to worry about where the next meal was coming from and there was always stuff to do. It was so much better than home." This made me really rather sad. What is our society coming to when life is better in prison than at home for some of it's members? If you think about the conspicuous consumption of those who have come into large amounts of money (by whatever means) you can see why people are insisting that we have two options to solve this problem - punish those who riot or try to find a way to share the proceeds of society more equally.

That said, there is little doubt that some of the behaviour we have seen has been caused by some outrageously lax parenting. I've seen it myself - the parents who treated my old school as a state babysitter, the parents who told me when I called to talk about their child's behaviour that "it's not my fault you can't control my kid." Police and politicians asked on monday for parents to contact their children if they were on the streets and ask or order them to come home. At what point was that going to work? The rioters may have been kids but if we are going to solve this problem we need to look at the conditions in which they are brought up, and the skills of their parents.

For instance, many students in Years 10 and 11 (15 and 16 year olds) at my old school had baby brothers and sisters. We need to look at the effect this has on them - their mother's time and attention is neccessarily taken up with a tiny baby and so the young people look outside the home for attention and a "family life" (read 'gangs').

Education system

Of the many things said to me on the day I told my old school (a state school) I was leaving to join my current school (a private school), the one that stuck most in my memory was this from an assistant head. "I can't believe you are taking your skills away from young people who need them and giving them to people who don't need them." In one sense, this was hyperbole, because all young people need a teacher's skills, albiet in different ways. But in another sense she had a point about the students at my old school. They need teachers, not just to teach them academic subjects, but to help them engage with life.

An amusing article I read once described a conversation a new teacher had with an old mate. "He asked me what this PSHCE was and I went through it in detail, how it teaches about sexual health, drugs, alcohol, relationships, citizenship skills and all that. There was a pause.....and then he said 'Oh, right, so it's basically doing what parents should do'."

The education system needs to be looked into, because every single person involved in the riots has been through it at some point in their lives. Yes, some of them may have truanted. Some will have left at 16. But even if schools haven't caused the problems, they can be involved in the solution.

We need to look at making sure the education system inculcates the right values and behaviours to ensure young people can get on in society. It also needs to be offering them opportunities to learn subjects that help them get a career and feel there is some hope in the future. We need to look at other education systems around the world. Let's start with Germany, for many reasons, but not least this one:

Britain's Gini coefficient (a measure of equality that puts an entirely unequal society at 1 and an entirely equal one at 0) is 0.36, France’s 0.32 and Germany’s 0.28. Germany's economy has recovered very strongly from the recession, but they also have an education system based upon matching their young people to appropriate educational pathways, and the result is higher equality.

Rights without responsibility

This is where something has, in my opinion, gone rather wrong in society. Somehow or other our young people are very cognisant of their 'rights' but far less accepting of their 'responsibility'. I still recall with a shake of the head what Ramzi Mohammed (one of the failed 21/7/2005 London bombers) shouted as he cowered behind a door as the police tried to break in..."I have rights! I have rights!"...this from a man who had attempted to murder hundreds of people.

It is the ultimate expression of a perfectly honourable attempt in the late 1990s to ensure that everyone was aware of their rights to make sure that they didn't accept ill-treatment and got what they were entitled to. New Labour made it very clear at the time that these rights - enshrined in the 1998 Human Rights Act - were to be given in return for citizens being responsible too. But it led to a distortion of the 'rights-culture' into what we have now.

As a teacher, I have heard many times that the school has "no right to have my kid in detention" from parents, perhaps in response to a detention for not doing homework or something nasty said to someone else. The problem is that those same parents never quite understood that not only did the school have a right to discipline their child, but it was our responsibility to do so, for their own good.

An interesting extension of this has been seen in the term "respect". Young people these days are constantly on the look out for respect. Interestingly, they feel they have a right to respect and they have no responsibility to earn that respect. I was listening to an interview with  a girl the other day saying something I have heard quite a few times along the lines of "they are disrespecting me so I'm gonna disrespect them. When they respect me I'll respect them." Trouble is, it is never clear what this 'respect' entails, and it may appear to some that 'disrespect' actually means 'trying to stop me committing crime'.

I prefer to look at it another way. As a society we should find out what would make young people feel they are being "respected" and try to offer it. Maybe it's feeling listened to. Maybe it's feeling cared about. It might actually be something we can do. But when we do it, we must insist on reciprocal responsibility.

Relations with the police

The middle class tend to look at relations with the police like they do immigration. Because they don't feel the negative side of it they think it isn't a problem for others. Immigration has been only good for me - I get cheap food from around the world and cheap cleaners and builders etc and a wonderful diversity of pupils to teach in school. But many people have seen themselves marginalised in society in favour of immigrants in terms of both jobs and housing, and we middle class intelligensia seem to brush those feelings aside as racism instead of empathising with the genuine frustration some people feel. It's the same with relations with the police. We in the middle class - not experiencing the constant hassle from the police that many in society do, never subject to constant stop and search and constant suspicion in the course of what the police will regard as just doing their job - just brush aside these claims with an "if you're doing nothing wrong you've got nothing to worry about." Well, as I talked about in point 4 of a previous article (click here), some people in society do nothing wrong and still have to worry. We need constant dialogue and understanding between the police (who are supposed, after all, to have a 'monopoly on power') and the policed. Some, of course, see the police as an impediment to them committing crimes, and hide that behind complaints of brutality and bias, but that is a very small minority.The police have made so many positive strides since the horrors of the 80s and the institutional racism laid bare by the McPherson report in the 90s in terms of their engagement with communities. But they are not there yet, and the alleged refusal to communicate with the family of Mark Duggan after he was shot dead shows that.

Restrictions on the police

The Met Police have admitted today that they gave strict orders to those on the street to "stand and observe" rather than go on the offensive against the rioters. This was because of the risk of legal challenge to their actions in the light of the ongoing court cases related to the policing of the G20 protests and the student fees protests. I have written about this (read here) and pointed out that the rioters will have guessed that this might happen and will have taken full advantage of it. By yesterday, there seemed to be a public consensus that the police should be allowed to do their job properly. Through the media the plans to use plastic bullets was aired and water cannons discussed and given that there wasn't the usual backlash to these ideas they would have probably gone through with it should there have been serious disturbances in London. BUT we need to have a debate about how it came to this. The police effectively admitted that the constant legal challenges to their actions have made them fear doing their job and the result was looting, arson and violence. Have we, in our attempt to be a liberal society, gone too far? Have we now got the police force we deserve? The vigilante groups set up yesterday and out in force all over London certainly think so.

What they see as acceptable in society

Many of the youths involved in the rioting see a society that has excluded them from 'having'. They see footballers exhibiting vast wealth and even minor celebrities flaunting their possessions. They will also have been told by some of the ringleaders that looting is OK because the rich are looters too. Tax avoidance is seen by many as stealing from society. Causing a financial crisis then rewarding yourself with 'a bonus in order to retain talent in a global employment marketplace' is also seen as looting as well. Too many people, in the eyes of the marginalised in society, have taken from us without giving. Now it's their turn. There was an interesting stand-off in Clapham where a group of residents blocked off their road to be confronted by a group of youths shouting   "you are rich, we are poor" and "we rule London tonight, not you." Others, talking to the press said that "we're going to show the rich that we can do what we want, just like they can". This, to most people, seems like a shallow excuse, but in their minds, they may believe that our current society rewards those who take what they can - but only legalises some of the methods.

"The cuts"

Ken Livingstone was called an "opportunist" for saying on Newsnight that "if you are making massive cuts, there's always the potential for this sort of revolt against that".  He talked about the social divisions created by the government's austerity drive and also the effect of the cuts in police that are taking place - pointing out that he raised the number of police by 7,000 in his time as mayor. No doubt this is electioneering by Livingstone, and, as is always required by those on the left wing, it ignores the £1 trillion of debt this government inherited from Labour but to call it 'opportunistic' is, welll, 'opportunistic' too. Because Ken is right, we do have to look at the effect of the cuts as part of looking at the causes and solutions to the current crisis in our society. From Sure Start to other children's services through to youth clubs and the like, we need to be careful what is being done away with, because the effects will be in the long run. It seems to me that the government is happy to attack the entitlements of those who don't or can't vote (the young) whilst leaving along the entitlements of those who do (the old) even though many of the older recipients of bus passes and fuel benefit are very wealthy and don't need it. I would like to see, as part of whatever inquiry arises from these riots, a closer scrutiny as to who is being affected negatively by the austerity drive. I believe in the reasons for the austerity drive, but that doesn't mean I neccessarily agree with how it is being done.

Lack of opportunities

And here lies the nub of this crisis. Many of the rioters just didn't care. So what if they got arrested? So what if they got sent to prison? Arrest and prison are a badge of courage where they come from. It doesn't make a difference to them anyway. We might say - "if you go to prison you'll find problems getting a job". To which they might legimately answer "well I didn't have any chance of getting a job before this so what difference will going to prison make?"

No, we need to get together as a society and work out how to make all young people feel they have opportunities to be successful in life. But we need to make sure their targets are actually attainable and realistic. Through help with parenting, education, sensitive policing, ensuring they learn the importance of the responsibilities of a citizen as well as the rights we can see that there are benefits from being part of a community, from being part of society.

Or we can just hang-em and flog-em.

I think I know what is more likely to work.

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