Life’s (not) a riot

The last few days’ disturbances now feel like a car crash. Something started going wrong, then it skidded further, then bumped into something else and before we knew it people were dead and injured and onlookers are asking ‘what the hell happened there?’ It all happened so fast.

Politicians are reading their agendas into the analysis and pronouncing their solutions out of it. The public are trotting out the most gross generalisations about ‘youths’ and prescribing blanket restrictions and the toughening up of order and punishment in a Britain that used to be ‘broken’ but is now ‘sick’.

But not everyone is out of control. “Young people” en masse are not out of control.

Something got set off that triggered [a tiny minority of mostly] young people to go and chance their arm at looting. Nothing inside them seemed to say “don’t do it”. No moral brakes in evidence. It looks like a warped sense of impunity had become justified on that first evening in Tottenham because of a genuine sense of injustice at the killing of one of ‘their’ people. Questions were in the air. The local youth club had been closed down; there was no one else in the chain between the police and a bewildered community. Nowhere to get answers, no-one to take the energy out of the outrage. The ‘have-nots’ had become so tired of being have-nots that it was due time to become ‘haves’. That seemed to have been a logical extension from being victims of a perceived injustice. And before we knew it PC World in Tottenham Hale was ransacked. To a small group of people this seemed reason enough to turn a latent longing for such possessions into a justified lawless entitlement: as if consumer were goods were a ‘right’ that they had been denied.

In case I need to say it – I am of course not condoning such lawlessness. Our organisation exists to promote the rule of law which implicitly involves honouring it.

But it is interesting that such ‘riots’ tend to happen in the school holidays. And seem to be more likely now that investment in civic go-betweens has been stripped out of local and national spending. Who would want to be the government right now? Committed to lowering costs on prisons and yet having 1,500 new crimes to handle amidst a spirit of public outrage; promoting the Big Society in a climate of fear… Big Stick Society more like.

Well, we do actually stand up for government.

We believe in it, and in children and young people being schooled in the ways of democracy and its values.

I seriously believe that if such disturbances had taken place during one evening in term time, then school would have been the most formative element in dealing with these outbreaks. A calming buffer zone. Because in term time young people would have been in dialogue with their civic go-betweens: teachers. They would have had someone to interpret and re-frame the events and to challenge the dizzying mindset that could connect a grievance in North London, with the lawless acquisition of branded goods made by people on the minimum wage in China and looted by young people whose parents are on a minimum wage in the UK: fuelled by the ubiquitous seductive forces of global marketeers profiting from all stations in between. A closed loop of poor stay poor and rich get rich… Within this system of thought something made it all make sense… outside of it, where most people live, none of it does.

There is nothing in the school curriculum that can address and unpack such fast moving and global changes: such hidden forces and swirling value systems. Nothing except education for citizenship: which overtly draws young people into reckoning with the world around them, not as history, geography or business, but as collective forces from which we must collectively plot our way into the future. Through cultural jungles, across economic quicksand, political minefields and legal battlegrounds to a consolidated future where we have reckoned with our challenges without creating a prison population the size of that in the gun toting USA. This is the expertise of educationalists. They are not employed to be moral policemen empowered to be ever-more physically assertive in order to take their place in the battle for law and order, but people who make sense of it all.

Schools are not the place where teachers replace the shortfall of discipline that parents aren’t providing: they are places for education. If the curriculum doesn’t hold an opportunity for social education then the pressure will be on them to revert to shorthand tactics like command and control of those on the margins. Containment until they fall out the other end of the system.

I would suggest that this is not the time to withdraw the civic go-betweens. They are, quite frankly cheaper and more effective than prisons. They are also developmental in the long term. The last riots and police battles we saw in the UK involved some housing estates, but also a whole generation of miners who now live in something of an economic wasteland around where I grew up. We can’t afford to create any more economic wastelands: we need go-betweens and we need teachers who get the chance to teach, to teach the right subjects, and who are supported to do so. We need a long term and systematic approach with a commitment to leave no one on the outside: no wastelands. That’s not a two week summer course for 16 year olds with the name ‘Citizen’ in the title, but a 12 year educational path for citizenship delivered by professionals who can make sense of it all before it happens, when it happens, and after it happens.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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