It’s hard to watch the endless analyses of why the London riots happened and not feel incredibly torn. As a teacher, I find myself ruminating over the causes and finding very few answers to questions that the nation is now asking. What do we know? Despite the fact that the media have highlighted particular cases of looters charged and sentenced whom society wouldn’t have expected to be involved in a riot, we can’t ignore the fact that the majority of people charged are young men, largely unemployed and disaffected.
At various points I am angered by those who claim that the riots are just about criminality – to simplify this is as just a freak manifestation of inherent criminal tendencies is short-sighted at best. Now that the dust is settling and more and more information is presented to the public on who was involved, we cannot stand back and state categorically that the riots were caused by one thing and one thing alone. As much as I abhor what happened – to my own neighbourhood and to others’, I need to understand the complexities and not judge. Judgement is so final; I am saddened by the fact that the events of the last few days have given the extreme right an excuse to spew their vile nonsense – and especially, to find that people I thought I respected echo their words, in one form or another. Their judgements and pronouncements prevent us from understanding and therefore, from finding lasting solutions to the problems we have ignored for too long.
Dehumanising these acts by calling the perpetrators “scum” or “feral rats” allows us to abdicate responsibility – because the looters aren’t human, we don’t have to look for the human reasons behind the riots. Language is so telling and unfortunately, the language people are using, from both sides of the argument – those scared and affected by the riots and those committing acts of looting and violence – shows that we have reverted to categorising each other. We are no longer individuals, but “looters”, “thugs”, “rich people”, “the police”.
To watch the sentencing is also hard. One part of me knows that justice has to be seen to be done. But on the other, it feels so futile to lock some of these people up. It’s like watching a tsunami wash over the country only to be told that it’s okay, the swimming pools will contain the water. Jail is not the solution – we have known for years that they act as breeding grounds for further criminal behaviour, the rates of recidivism are incredibly high and they destroy any chance for people to be successful later on. There will be people reading this who immediately jump on my last statement and exclaim that they do not deserve success – they have done something wrong. I cannot ascribe to this view as someone who works with children; some children misbehave and if my message to them is that there is no salvation, no way back from that mistake, I am only perpetuating the problem, not attempting to resolve it.
Commentators from left and right have argued that the riots are a consequence of a sort of violent consumerism – as a society, we have taught a generation of young people that having is more important than giving. Perhaps this is true. I was lucky enough to go a school in inner-city Leicester where the motto was “Be Concerned”. My friends and colleagues laugh at this now, and I admit, it does sound like a dire warning. However, at the time, I knew that it meant that I had to ‘be concerned’ about people, my neighbourhood, the surrounding area. We used to take harvest parcels to the elderly and those in need. We learned to give.
I can’t help but feel that in our attempts to place highly on league tables, in our attempts to pass exams in the most artificial ways, we have forgotten what it means to truly teach. Some teachers do face the awful dilemma of deciding between focusing on the test and focusing on the child. In some cases, children do not have the guidance and care from home that they need to function in society, they are not provided with the ability to form a moral compass. We’ve also fooled them into thinking that by having a GCSE, an A-Level or a degree means that they are immediately going to find a job. Are we surprised that they feel cheated? Core values and skills – confidence, articulacy, literacy, a sense of purpose, a sense of identity – are they now just by-products of our education system?
In my department, there are three maxims that we share with students: ‘work hard, be nice’ (the assumption being that it may not get you everything, but it may make life a little easier); ‘there are no shortcuts’ (the idea being that quick fixes are not long term solutions – reading the York Notes on a text is not going to get an A*) and ‘don’t quit before the miracle starts’. The last one sounds cheesy, but we found that students gave up once the going got tough and that led to failure where there shouldn’t have been failure.
In September, schools are going to have to be the front line against what some people have called the steady erosion of values in society. I do not accept the pronouncements from Mr Gove about needing to instil discipline in schools – that is only part of the issue. The power to search someone’s bag, or to keep them in a detention without parental permission is not going to change the fact that some children don’t understand what it means to earn something. What teachers say to their students about earning respect and earning money and earning success is far more important.