The last few days in England have been…disturbing to say the least. And it’s not yet over, however it seems that the Police may finally be getting the upper hand. Having weathered the storm, London and England is now counting the cost-in the case of Birmingham, sadly, that cost extended beyond money and into human lives. It should not have gotten that far.
Is it possible to say that the Police did not do enough, without blaming them? “The boys in blue” faced a job which is difficult for anyone to do. I must restrain my observations to London since I know little of the other cities experiencing riots, but I know that London is a vast city and even without cuts in numbers, there were not enough policemen on the ground over the weekend and Monday to cover it all-it’s impossible. The reason why businesses and buildings burned down without the fire service getting to them was because the police was too stretched to provide protection for the firemen as they did they work. That we even got to this stage is shameful and harrowing. These riots were unprecedented not just because of their scale but also because of the mindless brutality which the represented. Forget mocking the French from now on-at least when they protest and riot they do it for a coherent reason, they have goals and an overarching political motivation. What we saw in London was different-it may have started with some semblance of a point but it quickly disintegrated into pure crime on an epic scale. Did the police do enough to prevent it-no. Could they reasonably be expected to deal with this level of mass crime without serious support (and also leadership from the country’s holidaymaking leaders)-no.
So how did we get here? As politics.co.uk’s Ian Dunt says, its hard to say we did not see this coming. Perhaps not the scale, but we all knew something was wrong. I will try to offer an idea on what drove these events, based on my personal experience growing up in London during the Labour years. When I moved to London about 11 years ago, the city was a wholly different place. Coming in, I was struck by how polite everyone was and it generally felt safe. Over the next decade, somehow, this all started breaking down. Much though I have always hated to admit it, David Cameron’s Broken Britain creed has had more basis in reality than most of his other mantras. There are areas and areas of course, but at least in the suburbs of London (as we just saw) all is not well. This kind of thing starts early. When I came to London, I settled in Ealing with my mother and, not knowing anything about the local schools, I signed up to study in a school close by called Brentside High School. I was later to find out that Brentside has the reputation of the or one of the worst schools in west london-performance wise and crime wise. Without wishing to be unduly harsh to the school and staff, I would say that this reputation is mostly justified. The reasons for this are myriad and are I think connected to some of the underlying reasons behind the riots.
So what was Brentside’s problem? The teaching-not really. As with any school, we had great teachers and we had absolutely terrible teachers-including some who regularly turned up late to lessons or didn’t turn up at all. But for each of those we also had teachers who really cared, gave their work their all and inspired their students to achieve. The teachers we had who did not put the effort in did not do it out of laziness-they did it because they had given up. And why was that-because for every “set 1” class there were three to four “sets” full of rude, uncooperative and often violent children or youths. I helped out as a teaching assistant one year and if I were any older I would probably have been driven to drink-that’s how bad Brentside’s crop of students generally was. In fact I am positive that a lot of the looters in Ealing who didn’t come it from out of town, were the type of kids we had in Brentside. A note of caution here-the rude and violent of Brentside came and still come in all shapes, sizes, colours and creeds. This was not a racial phenomenon , but a wholly social one. I always got the vibe that these children were not properly disciplined at home, though a lot of them did display at least some fear when being threatened with having their parents come in. It is probably fair to say that parental authority has been erroded in recent years and along with it, so has responsibility. However, when children are of school age, they spend the majority of their time in School-or at least so we hope. The place where we need authority restored, the place where we can nip this thing in the bud, is our Schools. In Brentside, the teachers had almost zero authority and that is why the school was mostly in a state of barely controlled chaos.
Due to the state of the law currently, teachers are unable to discipline pupils, and if you know you cannot take it further, it is useless scream and shout at them (not that our teachers did not try). Up until a certain age, a senior teacher shouting at the top of his or her lungs still had some sway over pupils but as they get older, bigger, stronger that control wanes. From what I have heard, Brentside has gotten worse since I left-students throwing chairs in the classroom, physically pushing teachers regularly etc. Of course, there are many students who get along their day, study hard and never put a foot wrong. In a school like this, these are the real victims. Their education is being ruined by the thugs which schools fail to control. And now, those same thugs felt strong enough to spill out onto the streets and terrorize their whole community as opposed to just their teachers of classmates. This must end, and it can end if teachers are given back their authority over pupils. This does not extend just to being allowed to smack students, though that is very necessary. It also extends to the right to expel-for example a boy in my year was only suspended for a day after he choked and punched a girl who had done nothing to him. What that boy did was an actual crime, but all he got was a slap on the wrist and a day off school. We need harsher punishments, so that the youth learns early on that they are not invulnerable.
To do this, we need to change our whole mentality towards our children. Parents and adults generally seem afraid of young people and it should be the other way around. The ban on smacking children at home and in schools has made them feel inviolate. This is wrong. The best way for a young adult to feel that there are consequences for their actions is the acute realization that they will suffer for any wrong doing. Furthermore, there has been this mentality which I have seen develop in schools (but I think also at home) over the last 10 years, namely that education should be tailored to every child’s individual needs to the extent that work is easier if a child is deemed of lower ability and “low ability” children are cut a lot of slack. There is also this attitude that children should be praised for anything and everything they do, even if it is not really that good. With respect to the people (who probably have degrees in this sort of thing) who came up with this, this approach is comprehensively wrong and I believe is one of the main enablers for what we saw these last few days. There are several reasons why this approach is incorrect. Firstly, by lowering expectations for lower ability students, this removes any drive they may have had to improve their ability. If they are reaching these lower targets and getting the same praise, they will not aspire to more. To that end, the whole “set” system must be abolished. I have studied in a different (post communist) educational system which is far superior in this sense. Children there are not separated by ability and all have access to the same quality teaching and facilities (which is fairer) but are in turn expected to work to the same standard. This drives those at the bottom forward rather than pushing them down as the fear is in the UK. If a child is indeed struggling then this can be rectified by a good teacher and private tuition-however setting the bar lower is counter intuitive, unproductive and frankly insulting to the child and parents. Children should be taught to aim for the top at all times and not satisfy themselves with less. Furthermore, children should get real praise when they really achieve and not when they do pretty much anything halfway decent-otherwise the children who do achieve will be discouraged to continue and the children who don’t wont be encouraged to try harder.
It is vital to not bring the school down to the level of the least able pupil, but the elevate every pupil to the standard of the school. That is where Labour got it badly wrong in Government. With this, and with better discipline through harsher punishments we may be able to reverse the trends we are seeing in today’s youth.