I thought I’d join in with the latest internet craze: explanations of the riots which are actually thinly veiled efforts to raise completely unrelated issues. Let me be the first to claim that the riots were the inevitable result of mixed ability teaching, performance management and Brain Gym. Or something.
Well, okay, I won’t actually try and make that argument, but having already seen attempts to blame the riots on tuition fees and “high stakes testing” I could make those arguments and still not be responsible for the most ridiculous riot-related claims in the education blogosphere.
There is actually very little I can say as a teacher to inform the debate that isn’t already obvious to anyone other than the most committed, and out of touch, ideologues. These are not protests or expressions of disaffection from “the youth”; this is crime and, like most crime, it is mostly young people robbing stuff they want or causing harm for kicks. It is only noticeable because of the scale and that is probably mostly to do with the nice weather, school holidays and ease of communication. It is not a separate issue from any other discussion of crime and so, not surprisingly, the most sensible comments in the blogosphere tend to come from those who deal with criminals professionally, through being in the police or working with young offenders, where the focus is on the failure of the criminal justice system, as a whole, to deliver justice or prevent crime.
Even though so many of the rioters are young, the education system could not have prevented this. Better discipline in schools cannot ensure better discipline in the streets. I never cease to be amazed how the sources that suggest discipline in classrooms used to be clearly much better also suggest behaviour outside the classroom wasn’t. Schools can’t social engineer the whole of society and despite all the reforms I want to see in our schools, none of them are likely to make a difference to a breakdown of law and order.
There are a few parallels to be drawn between discussion of the riots and discussion of school discipline. There do appear to be those who are so firmly convinced of the saintliness of the young that they make all sorts of excuses for the worst of them. There do appear to be those who care only for those who cause harm and think nothing of their victims. There do appear to be those who, from a safe distance, think that it is compassionate to tolerate injustice and “demonization” to condemn those who do wrong. There do appear to be those who simply see everything that goes wrong as the inevitable, yet somehow unforeseen, consequence of having a different political ideology. But while these debates are similar in that the mistakes are the same, there is no reason to assume that an indifference to injustice in one situation can be challenged by reference to another. There is only one point I will make that I can draw from the fact that our schools contain within them a small minority of children who were out rioting the last few nights and that is the obvious one. Next time you hear it said that this or that badly-behaved child can be turned around by “relationship-building”, “developing self-esteem” or “making learning fun”, can we at least remember that they could be one of those children who would happily burn down a stranger’s house just for a laugh? Try turning that attitude around by changing your praise-to-criticism ratio.