“We are what we always were […] but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom…”
Driving the circuitous route from my home to Islington for lunch and a visit to a bookshop, I notice something odd. I have felt the edginess in the air since Saturday night and the first riot in Tottenham, so dangerously close to where I am. It is only on Green Lanes on the way home, towards Turnpike Lane that I realise what it is. The shutters are down on local businesses. From the moment I notice this, it’s like when you notice the first ant. All of sudden, there’s another and another. The shops, pharmacists, hairdressers, grocery shops and appliance retailers, all closing at a quarter to five on a Monday. This feels surreal and doesn’t ease my considerable fears.
I top up my electricity. My local newsagent, a jolly man, is still open. I ask him what’s going on – not only are the local shops closed, but a lot are surrounded by men who look as if they are there to stay. Is this the local community beginning to defend their livelihoods because they know they are in for another night of looting? He replies that he has information that the looting has started on Salisbury Road, not five minutes from where we are. He’s closing up and he has family with him, all men, all on phones.
The quotation from ‘The Crucible’ by Arthur Miller seems eerily resonant now. Whereas Saturday night in Tottenham, there seemed to be a reason for the violence (albeit complex and difficult to digest), the looting we have seen and heard about is predominantly led by young people who have realised simply that if they want to break into a shop in large numbers, in different places, they can and there will be no immediate consequence. In ‘The Crucible’, the girls who lead the witch hunt, crying out against their neighbours, do so because they can – some tiny power has been handed to them and they have no idea – no regard for – the consequences.
I have seen this before. Anyone who has worked in a school that is struggling to manage the behaviour of large numbers of students knows all too well how easy it is to lose control and have corridors that belong, in essence, to the students. Fortunately for me, I have worked in schools that have been on an upwards turn and haven’t experienced this issue on a grand scale. But there are moments, when a fight breaks out between two students – and then there are five, then twelve, then twenty. The only way it stops and the crowd is dispersed is when the adults are adults and arrive to be the responsible force in that corridor. The immediate aftermath is vital – how that fight is dealt with and the message that goes out about what will and will not be tolerated becomes the turning point. A school has to have a policy, but it also has to have consistency and an unequivocal approach to enforcing it – tying in parents, students and staff.
But it is not the most important thing. Good schools and by extension good societies, are built on the every day understanding that adults are in charge. A very wise man, a headteacher who I won’t name here because he’d be embarrassed, often says that the way we show that we are in control is by being present. One teacher standing by themselves in a corridor will not make a difference. Six or seven will. My students do not behave just because I have rules, that is only part of how I maintain order, they behave because they recognise that I will be annoyed, disappointed, angry even, if they disrupt the learning of others. I am the first line of defence, as the adult in the room. The sanctions are what I fall back on. The other thing is that the majority of my interactions with my students are positive – I have spent time building trust, showing that I respect them. This makes the negative interactions easier to diffuse.
Just having laws to deal with disobedience isn’t enough. Clearly it isn’t. I am watching the news; the youths who have just torched a car in Hackney aren’t even wearing masks which would suggest to me that they don’t care about the law. None of this is even personal because there are no people – no one has come out to stop the children from looting, no parent has taken their child to a police station to return the goods that they have stolen – and if they have, they are one person in a nation that has forgotten how to be responsible adults. I understand fear, I have had the dilemma of whether to step into an argument between two people on a bus, or whether to ask someone to pick up litter. But what happens now? The police can enforce laws, but they do not create society – we do – and we are not out there in our own ‘corridors’.
When the Prime Minister finally returns to see the images I am seeing now in Hackney, Enfield, Walthamstow and in Brixton and Lewisham, maybe then we will begin to have a wider debate about what we need to do now to build a society that is led by grown ups and not dictated by children. It then needs to be acted on by all of us.
For now, I will wait to see what happens – what else can I do?