Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Teaching after the riots

A recurrent theme of this blog is the analogy between schools and society, teaching and government. This is no surprise: schools are our society writ small, with the same tensions, pressures, authorities, contradictions, and community issues. This week the link became stronger as many educators will have watched riots in UK city centres and known some of their own students will have been involved. Twitter has been full of heated debate between teachers, some with dogmatic positions and some (to their credit) later backing down and reconsidering - a sure sign of a skilled teacher and real role-model. How do we respond afterwards in our classrooms?

First, we need to remember that we are obliged to show patience and not entitled to outrage, as educators. We made that compact on entering this profession: to respond firmly, and to choose dialogue; to listen and consider, and to seek root causes; to forgive even while punishing and show young people that those are compatible - to maintain the relationship and enable it to move forward more strongly even when we are delivering consequences. The ancient Greek proverb, I believe, goes "After the war - make alliances." My suspicion and dislike of those who seemed in teaching to wield power because they could began strongly as a school student and continues in unbroken line today: it is not the primary role of our job to wish to punish, part of the role though it be. As such, it ill becomes an educator to use Twitter (tempting as it is in the instant in the pub or watching the fires on the news) to either rant about arresting / imprisoning / deporting / executing (yes, people said it) young people - even in the height of a riot - fine in the staff room, not fine on social media: "public faces on, please, children." Similarly, teachers will know they have a role to identify their students from pictures and sensitively address this issue with other authorities - but putting out calls on Twitter to commit to this role is a step too far: it has a clarion taste of collaboration in the negative sense, and the potential to massively damage relationships between the staff and student bodies in (especially difficult) schools.

You should have gathered by now that I disapprove of the riots - of course I do - but there is no need to become one-sided about this: you don't have to either condone or condemn - the obligation of an educator is softer in both cases, to both stand on principle against the riots, and yet to understand their root causes. To consider cause is not to condone violence, nor is anyone pretending the violence is other than just wanton criminality. But there must be a reason we got to here and it's not treachery to reflect on it. Doug Belshaw's superb short article addresses this, and I consider my article an extended unpacking of that initial plea for consideration and debate. No smoke without fire - very literally in this case.

Consider the following causes: (1) massive cuts to youth services and EMA, plus student fees rising massively - and wider cuts affecting many of the same families; (2) the youth Careers Service has effectively just been cut - at a time of record youth unemployment; (3) bankers bonuses are at £14Bn this year. On the last figure - note that the £100M repair bill the riots are likely to cause (cf Guardian) is equivalent to two and a half days of bankers' bonuses - the same cost to society, extracted in the same period of time. Both are damage to the social fabric as a result of wanton greed and selfishness - and the (apparent) invisibility of the theft-by-the-rich makes it, if anything, the more offensive. Did you realise that median banker salaries have doubled since the crash began, to nearly twenty times UK average income? It's perfectly possible to loathe the rape of our social fabric by the wanton at both ends of the income scale, and to loathe them together and equally. Ed Miliband has started to craft a narrative of this, but Labour predictably hasn't pushed properly yet on linking the riots to this.

One major vein of poison-dripping criticism - often from well-informed leftists - is that there is "nothing political" in these riots. These young people don't want free education, better healthcare, youth centres or the vote - they want stolen TVs or, worse yet, just to smash stuff for the sake of it. This is a valid criticism but it mustn't censure comments about cause: it's a bit New Labour metropolitan elite to suggest that only middle-class disaffection is permitted in the streets. People keep twittering to the effect that "these riots are just criminal, they're not political" - but this is a nonsense. Yes, they're just criminal - but while they are not politically informed or activist, they are political because they are caused by political choice and social circumstance: political is from Greek -polis, meaning "of the city / the people", so it's political because what caused this has affected so many to make them do this. Criminality on this scale IS political: were there not disaffection, the seed would fall on dry ground; note that the riots have not been ethnic or gender-specific, and their sheer geographical spread indicates tinder disaffection in multiple locations, ready to spark. @aaronjohnpeters quotes the African proverb "if the young are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth" and points out that a year in jail costs the taxpayer £52k; he asks "surely housing, EMA and not introducing fees would have been easier?" It's controversial but a valid consideration: fixed principles of right and order start to look questionable when the overall cost of the aftermath of cuts is greater than the programmes that would have prevented them. In more judgemental balance, @iamDanMorris brilliantly twittered that "Only in the UK could rioters in £100 trainers organising things on £300 smartphones claim to be in poverty" but we also have to remember that prosperity or poverty is relative - to your own changing circumstances, and to others in your own country. When teens see their family income being scythed as costs rise, their opportunities disappearing and see headlines reporting ever-fatter gluttony by the richest, the compulsion to react is strong. Interesting and sometimes admirable "Red Tory" Philip Blond rightly talks about the "rentier society" of disenfranchisement that led us here, but no sooner has he done that than Housing Minister Grant Shapps tweets he'll back social landlords evicting any tenant involved in the criminality, without apparent respect for context or rights - deep Tory understanding followed immediately by Daily Mail knee-jerk gesture.

An apt if obscure comparison is with the Bagaudae of the collapsing late Roman Empire: as central authority fell apart in the face of falling prosperity due to increasing greed and rapacity by the monied super-wealthy, more and broader bands of the working poor found common cause in disdaining the state and joining together in unlikely alliance to function as brigands. Whole sections of Gaul and Hispania were at the mercy of this piracy for years. This is not to suggest the same is about to happen here - our policing and legal systems are too strong, our social fabric still too good despite this strain - but clearly an argument can be made that the same mechanism is underpinning this. Protesters don't have to have an explicit liberal cause - as any teacher will know, just feeling "hard done by" is the root cause of most "kicking off": note the Reuters analysis of comment from the street. Reports of the police and Housing Benefit reforms being used to convert everything inside the North Circular into one huge monied gated community are not true - yet. We may not admire violent reaction to violent injustice but teachers, more than most, should recognise it - should recognise its potential to spread - and should recognise that, amidst the selfishness and self-importance of it, there are other root causes to address as well if we wish to avoid such incidents in future. You can't just discipline: there's more of them than us so if we force them to be our enemies, woe betide us. Authority, at the point of conflict, is an illusion - teachers knew this already, even if society is shocked this week.

Leaving the socio-economic inequality issues aside, why don't young people feel more included in society in general? Well, we've narrowed the curriculum down to core subjects and even Citizenship has become dry bureaucratic fact-listing. This is all particularly familiar to me as a (now former) Citizenship teacher: two years ago the boards changed the syllabi to make Citizenship study much more overtly political and parliamentarian, and the damage to the subject for students at my not-very-highly attaining school was awful. We used to have students below the national average engaging in multiple interesting and socially-responsible, communitarian activities - fundraising, running charity days, hosting and catering events - for animal, medical and local charities. This was all shot to pieces by what I considered an excessively grammar-school-focused new model insisting the topics had to be overtly political: about historical development of rights, or representation or international issues - worthy subjects, to be sure, but a constraint that put off most of our pupils. Good practical action - D of E stuff - was replaced by endless letter writing to MPs and local councillors. The new model literally took a Big Society model of mass civic participation we had refined perfectly in a below-average school and destroyed it - because "political understanding and written expression" was more important in the eyes of a metropolitan leftist elite. Our students were demoralised massively. Plus they wondered openly what the hell the point was in peaceful protest anyway. If you want to know why these riots weren't "political" - ask how much effect protests against the Iraq war or Student Fee Rises had. Add in the Met's grossly inept and immoral handling of the Ian Tomlinson case and you have a generation whose explicit view is: you say you'll listen to us - you don't - you take the p*** using authority to suppress all protest anyway - everyone in power is minted and getting richer and it's only those at the bottom who suffer - f*** your politics, we're gonna smash some stuff. The risk of this line of (flawed, if grounded) logic gaining momentum is massive. The riots are not the end point but a step en route. Be warned.

Also important is for schools to take some responsibility for a missed opportunity a few months ago: it's not like we couldn't have channelled this disaffection much better. There was much press coverage of schools' dilemma in responding to under-16s wishing to take part in student tuition fee / EMA cancellation protests but it was depressingly one-sided: the combined force of media pressure for conformity and order, school threats of sanction and teacher social conservatism meant most schools banned students from protest and punished those who did. But we can't have it both ways: we can't say now we want young people involved in meaningful political protest instead of mindless violence - they asked for our support and approval for doing exactly that last year and we said no - no wonder they stopped asking us or bothering to inform us. Deny a moderate request and you may get worse. Consider my plea back in January (not on this blog, for reasons of anonymity-at-the-time - I have since changed jobs) for us to not only permit but empower young people's right to protest over important political issues. We didn't let them engage in debate - we weren't co-operative - so no we face the less co-operative response. Reap what you sow and all that...

The Twitter remedies for the curriculum are coming thick and fast now too. @josepicardo / @lauradoggett say that more PSHE is not the answer - but is more core maths and English, producing yet higher levels of disaffection with school / authority / the adult world going to help? In a week where research showed that half of all intelligence is genetically determined (i.e. the non-academic may not be able to do anything about that), is the narrowly-academic EBacc going to increase the self-esteem and opportunities of our neglected vocational learners? Or will they just go and steal some TVs instead of doing yet more desk-based study? Note David Price's excellent final paragraph about the bright-leftist delusion that all poor kids can be lawyers. This is in the same week that we learned that streaming harms less academic pupils' self-esteem (apparently, the Pope is Catholic etc) - and yet we plough on doing more and more of it. We need more vocational opportuinities, more PE for the ethos and mutuality it promotes, more D of E, much much more student voice (and more meaningful), and a wider sense of communal social education which would entail valuing participation, practical action, shared moral values (NOT imposed ones) - and this would HAVE TO mean a relaxation of focus on narrow grades and tables: it's a zero-sum game between these two value sets. Twenty years ago we started cannibalising pastoral and holistic for skeletal core academic and this is a fundamental root cause underpinning the outcome of a generation that feels no moral obligation or sense of community. I massively respect @josepicardo but his statement ""More PSHE is not the answer. Society wide acceptance of responsibility is" is akin to saying - "Driving there is not the answer. All of us being on the beach in Southern France is" - you need a mechanism as well as an outcome. We do need more, and more discursive / participatory (not imposed, political, bureaucratic) Citizenship and PSHE - that's exactly what we need - and skilled debate leaders in our classrooms - a skill that is dying out because lesson standards are killing circle discussions in favour of rushed, snippeted multi-activities.

Teachers: don't rant thoughlessly about the riots - even though you disapprove. Don't publicly lead the identification of suspects - even though you will engage with that process in some form where needed. Mindless criminality it may be, but don't dismiss it as groundless simply because of that. Most of all, don't keep letting yourself and your school continue on the slow drift towards drily academic, grade-focused learning: get back to morals, and character (you might find these models or these CPD resources from the TDA-funded The Ethos Project of use) in education, get back to social action and the social compact. As teachers we aren't responsible for either the unacceptable riots in our streets, or the gross and rising inequality which is a substantial cause, nor for the generation of poor parenting that has failed in the bridge between youth and social order - but it is not a chore that we, more than any other group in society (comfortably more, after the dust settles, than the police or politicians), will have most work to do, to ensure healing and progress - it is an opportunity, and I embrace it - moderately, reasonably, open-mindedly, and always aiming to resist dogma, entrenchment and stigmatisation. I encourage you to do so as well. This is where we can make an impact, and this is what we want to educate young people for - to make a difference. Come with me. And in the interests of salvaging social cohesion, I'll say that to them, too.