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most of the kids are alright

St Paul's
I feel as tarnished and gloomy as most sensible Londoners this morning. If I'd been living in my old flat, I could have seen most of the fires out of my windows, at varying degrees of distance. I am a long way from it here, thankfully.

I said elsewhere that I'd often wondered what happened to the 13 to 20% of kids who walk away from school with no qualifications and very limited numeracy and literacy skills. many of you assumed those are precisly the kids I used to teach, but I taught the ones who scraped through with low grades and went on to vocational courses, or who were resitting their GCSEs in the hope of doing better. Each year's 13 to 20% largely end up on benefits or in jail or in the grey area between the two, claiming what benefits they can and supplementing that income with criminal activity. This is not a recent development; those kids at the bottom have always been there. I know the stats for the last thirteen years only because I've been a teacher for the last thirteen years. These kids often have virtually no social skills. By that I mean they literally cannot sit in a room and hold a conversation with someone other than those in their peer group. That doesn't matter. They don't have the skills to fill in a job application form, they have nothing to put on it if they did, so no one is going to sit them in a room and give them an interview, unless that someone is in a blue uniform, and they are recording the interview.

Pretty much every time I've been served a coffee or a sandwich or walked past someone cleaning the streets and noted they were a recent immigrant, I've wondered about the 13 to 20% leaving school each year and going straight onto the dole. The last government, with its bold claims of 'an end to boom or bust' boasted of our growing economy needing all these extra workers from abroad. Many were coming in to fill gaps in the UK labour market. We kick up to twenty percent of our kids out of school illiterate, innumerate and socially dysfunctional, then we import people to the lowgrade jobs those kids cannot do, so the immigrants can pay taxes to pay the benefits that just about keep that underclass quiet. The last government merely consolidated the neglect of the previous ones. All governments of all hues since the seventies have failed to address this problem; the only difference between them is the narrative they have fed their respective voters about it. In the South London council block where I used to live, the black single mothers who were part of that underclass hated no one more than 'the Polish'. When Southwark council flyered our flats with letters about racist abuse and attacks in the area, those same women assumed it was white on black racism. They can't countenance any other sort. The one concrete ideal they gained from school is that most of the problems in their lives can be blamed on racism. In fact the assualts were groups of black youths attacking East Europeans, or those they deemed to be so. Amongst the other most trenchant and bitter racism I have witnessed in the classroom is black African versus black Caribbean. Not kids, but grown women, on an adult access to nursing programme.

Of course racism is - or at least was- at the heart of this problem. The Broadwater Farm riots of the eighties expressed the rage of black Londoners who were subject to stringent police action when they perpetrated crimes against whites or white-owned property, and limited concern or action about the gangs whose black-on-black crime was making their lives a misery. The subsequent, often merely cosmetic, changes to police policy and behaviour since have gone some way to address the former, but the latter has come to shape, all too often, what are now, in lazy journalistic shorthand, being referred to as 'black communities'.

I have seen such idiocy spouted about this over the last few days, much of it spouted by people I like and respect: the simplistic reactionary notion that that this is all the Tories' fault, left-wingers spouting class hatred and bigotry while throwing up their hands in moral outrage at the Daily Mailish outbursts of the other side. It's got personal too; I've had people who don't know my history assuming just because I'm out as a Tory (a brave thing to be, given the bigotry and self-righteousness of the left) all my opinions must be wrong, or that because I live in wealthy Richmond I have no right to comment on what's going on in Hackney. I don't usually bother arguing online about these things, because arguing online is utterly futile, but I bit back at the person a couple of days ago who claimed the riot in Tottenham was 'excellent'. I bit back because that person claims to be a socialist, or communist even and depicts themself as idealistic.

I can't be idealistic, obviously, because I'm an (often reluctant and despairing) Tory voter. It's not something I would normally quantify in these terms, but I probably am an idealist of sorts. I must have been, to have turned down a lucrative corporate job in order to teach in the most badly paid, underfunded, politically insignificant and catastrophically mis-managed sector of the education system: the FE sector. I've taught the 'unteachable', despite being punched, kicked and having chairs thrown at me. I've taught fledgling criminals to read, and helped the ones who weren't beyond help to fly in better directions. I've taught probably a couple of thousand kids, of all races and abilities, by now and taught them exactly what I had the privilege of being taught in my home counties grammar school. Some of the kids were rightly proud to go on to jobs in cafes and shops; some made it to Oxford.

Someone yesterday, assuming I was a) white, b) wealthy and c) middle class suggested I shouldn't be a teacher because I would obviously inculcate Tory values. I am not white, though my brothers were, and they were in that 13 to 20% forty years ago. Both were criminals, one dead from drugs, the other's sons are now in the BNP and EDL. The social group now suffering the greatest deprivation - and most likely to be victims of crime - are young white working class men. It amused me to scan through the FB friendlists of those I've been arguing with over the last few days. None of them stooped to the 'some of my best friends are black' cliche, because demonstrably, none of them could. I'm certainly not wealthy - far from it - though I would have been if I had stuck with that corporate job. And I prefer not think of myself as middle class, incapable as I am of middle-class guilt or enjoying middlebrow culture. I'd rather think of myself as having jumped, via education and inclination, straight to the upperclass, who share with the lower classes an unashamed tendency for debt, debauchery and drink. If you don't understand that link, you'll never understand why many working class Londoners would rather vote for smirking Boris than simpering Ken. As far as I know I have not taught Tory values. I've taught my pupils what I was taught. I've taught them that language is a wardrobe of many costumes, and that your life is a great deal richer - as is your bank account - if you have the liberty of choice between jeans and hoodie, an interview suit and a cocktail dress. I've taught them to question everything they're told, especally by teachers and politicians and the press. Maybe those are Tory values; one of the many reasons I became a Tory is that when I was part of the underclass, the right-wingers in positions of power around me offered me a hand-up, whereas the left-wingers merely offered me a handout.

I'm digressing, personalising, because I am angry and despairing. Right and left are meaningless in terms of what has happened over the last few nights. If you genuinely think that this wouldn't have happened if the coalition had been Labour/Lib Dem you need to get off the internet and get out more. That 13 - 20% have no respect or concern for or interest in any government, and probably can't even distinguish between the range of worthies in suits who have ruled us during their lifetimes. I've even seen someone blame Thatcher for what happened last night, as if Cameron had achieved the kind of reversal of history that was beyond Pohl Pot. Politics does not concern the 13 to 20%; criminality is their norm, just as it was their parents' norm.

They are not part of the society the people reading this belong to. Rioting last night gave them a sense of power and control, over the police, and over their neighbours. It's a huge oversimplification to say these are simply poor areas. Patterns of housing - particularly the rental market - in London are way more complex than that and Hackney, Clapham, Brixton etc have been increasingly gentrified over the last thirty years. The communities are much more mixed than many commentators will acknowledge. What these riots - which aren't demonstrations, but parties got out of hand, with fires and prizes - is the degree of alienation from their own communities, their inability to acknowledge that they are part of any community. They also don't see themselves as angry or even oppressed, because they cannot look beyond the circumstances they are in and the peer pressures around them. And it is about bad parenting, to the extent that when the 13 to 20% become parents they have no aspirations or responsibilities for their children to inherit. That won't change if you treat merely them as victims, and enhance their sense of entitlement to trainers and TVs, nor if you treat them merely as criminals and process them through a judicial system that encourages recidivism.

I commented to two of my former pupils last night, who were posting on FB about feeling scared, that they were the reason I felt less scared than most of my friends. I have been watching their responses, particularly the kids who live in the areas affected. The teenagers and younger kids I know, of all ethnicities, have cheered me enormously over the last few days, with the maturity and compassion and concern in their responses and comments. They put a lot of my reactionary acquaintances to shame. They are what I think of when I think of 'London youth'. The future is, I suspect, pretty safe in their hands. And they are only just a percentage point or two, most of them, above the dispossesed 13 to 20%. What lifts them above that is the ability to read and talk and think and the self knowledge and aspiration that comes with those abilities.

If you think you are an idealist, get off twitter, put down your placard, stop gazing at your navel to examine your privilege. Put your money and time where your mouth is. Go and volunteer in a primary school and sit with those who are struggling to read, go and become a school governor, go and do a bit of training to become an adult advocate so that when one of these kids goes through the judicial system and their parents can't or won't participate in the process, you can be called on to speak to and for them. If you can't do any of those things, work an extra shift or do some baby-sitting to free up a colleague or friend who can. Unlike gesture politics, these acts will make a difference. I've seen the difference they can make; I've seen the tragically slight difference between the 20th and 21st percentile. It's the difference between me and my brothers, between prison and college. It's the difference between the young offender I taught in Cardiff and his cellmates. His daughter, proudly ruffled in a dozen layers of pink lace, was christened with his probationer officer's and my first names, because as he said, without us, he'd be 'dead, not a dad'. I was touched by that comment, but I also thought the tragedy was that most boys who started out like him were both not dead and serial dads. His daughter is very lucky, she'll be brought up with different values to those he grew up with. Aspiration, like alienation is very easy to spread. You just have to get off both your arse and your moral highground to spread it.

PS: I am somewhat overwhelmed by the volume of comments, so am reluctantly giving up thanking people for positive comments, but will respond to questions and queries. I am delighted by the amount of linking to this and am happy for people to continue to do so.

Comments

( 585 comments — Leave a comment )
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clytemenstra
Aug. 9th, 2011 12:33 pm (UTC)
Thank you for writing this.
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 12:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading.
(no subject) - clytemenstra - Aug. 9th, 2011 12:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - moussaka_thief - Aug. 9th, 2011 01:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Aug. 10th, 2011 04:18 am (UTC) - Expand
poliphilo
Aug. 9th, 2011 12:40 pm (UTC)
Best thing I've read today.
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 12:44 pm (UTC)
Coming from you, that is high praise. Thank you.
(no subject) - michaelgrist - Aug. 10th, 2011 01:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - William Forshaw - Aug. 9th, 2011 10:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
arkady
Aug. 9th, 2011 12:40 pm (UTC)
You've posted this as public; would you mind if I link to it?
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 12:44 pm (UTC)
No, I'd be immensely flattered if you did.
(no subject) - arkady - Aug. 9th, 2011 01:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ramtops - Aug. 9th, 2011 03:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hairyears - Aug. 9th, 2011 04:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 03:05 pm (UTC)
Thanks, petal.
(no subject) - otowilches - Aug. 9th, 2011 11:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - Paris Lees - Aug. 10th, 2011 12:32 am (UTC) - Expand
hano
Aug. 9th, 2011 12:56 pm (UTC)
Stands and applauds.
hano
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:09 pm (UTC)
"All governments of all hues since the seventies have failed to address this problem."

So what is the way forward? I can see past the rhetoric all right, but have little conception as to what to do next. Granted, some of this is due to being an over-privileged white male. I'm open to suggestions.
(no subject) - rosamicula - Aug. 9th, 2011 01:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
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one possible way forward... - (Anonymous) - Aug. 10th, 2011 08:44 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: one possible way forward... - mejoff - Aug. 11th, 2011 08:29 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rosamicula - Aug. 9th, 2011 02:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rosamicula - Aug. 9th, 2011 03:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
ideealisme
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this. Have linked.
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:31 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
miriammoules
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:15 pm (UTC)
Here via arkady - do you mind if I link to it?
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:17 pm (UTC)
Nope, feel free.
(no subject) - rosamicula - Aug. 9th, 2011 02:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
alicephilippa
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:20 pm (UTC)
*applauds*

There's been too much of the "it's all the fault of the coalition" crap going on over the last few days. Just why has it been so hard for folks to actually get the idea that the problem runs so much deeper. I suspect it's because they don't want to actually admit, to themselves, that it is a problem that has built up over many years and that giving handouts is mere tokenism. Handouts are not long term help they are only papering over the cracks. Papering over the cracks is what Governments of all parties are guilty of, and have been guilty of over many many years. Real help doesn't come on a silver platter, or as a DSS giro, it come through hard work. Hard work for both the helper and the helpee.
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 09:03 pm (UTC)
Yup - thank you! I didn't get this earlier (I've been reposted everywhere and LJ notifications have been all over the place).
(no subject) - alicephilippa - Aug. 9th, 2011 09:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
bluekieran
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:24 pm (UTC)
I would really like to see this published somewhere it will be a lot more widely read, but shall for the moment settle for linking it.
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:30 pm (UTC)
Thank you. This is actually a demonstration of what I mean above. I know it's only LJ, but I can articulate what I feel and I have a platform to share it, and know I will be understood. It makes naff all difference in the grand scheme of things, but I want all the young people in miserable circumstances, with mediocre lives, to have what I have just gained by writing this, a sense of being heard and of being part of some sort of worthwhile community with shared and worthwhile values.
luddism
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:38 pm (UTC)
great concise and heartfelt piece - I've crossposted it to Google+ and Facebook friends, having seen it linked by Arkady earlier in the day as I think its well worth sharing around as an antidote to some of the rubbish I've been seeing and hearing all day. Thank you
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:54 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading. As I said in a comment above, I never have to feel isolated and powerless because I have a platform to express my views and anxieties and a community to listen to me - that's exactly what the dispossessed lack, and what they need.
loxian
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:40 pm (UTC)
Hi, poliphilo sent me here.

Thank you for writing this. I feel a bit guilty for having been so glib and dismissive about the riots, now. Also, slightly more proud to be a school governor, which sometimes seems a thankless task.
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 02:01 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading. And I can totally sympathise the apparent thanklesness of school governance.
(no subject) - ramtops - Aug. 9th, 2011 03:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - loxian - Aug. 9th, 2011 04:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
_silver_angel_
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:44 pm (UTC)
I've represented people like the students you talk about - one boy couldn't make eye contact with me for the first 30 minutes. He could only spell his daughters names because he had them tattooed on his arms. He broke my heart because once he made eye contact and managed to talk to me he was so bright and personable. He came from one of the 'worst' families in Gloucester and has been treated as such by pretty much everyone from primary school upwards, but I couldn't help thinking how much more potential he had than that - it is such a waste of valuable human resources in the true sense of the term.
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:56 pm (UTC)
That's sort of how I ended up teaching in FE. I accidentally got stuck with a GCSE resit class after a communication breakdown between the uni where I was doing my MA and my local FE college. I couldn't believe how a bunch of bright, lively, kids who were prepared to listen to me attentively could have such poor literacy skills after 11 years in school. It is the waste that is the crime.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Aug. 10th, 2011 02:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
moussaka_thief
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:45 pm (UTC)
What these riots - which aren't demonstrations, but parties got out of hand, with fires and prizes - is the degree of alienation from their own communities, their inability to acknowledge that they are part of any community. They also don't see themselves as angry or even oppressed, because they cannot look beyond the circumstances they are in and the peer pressures around them.

Yes. Amazing post.

For reference I'm a 'lefty liberal' who lives in Camberwell/Brixton and works on some of the poorest estates around Loughborough Junction (not teaching, I run a social enterprise that builds community gardens, allotments, orchards, etc on disused land in estates).

So yes, I'm a flaming hippie, but I'm not an apologist. Aspiration and responsibility for themselves is what these kids need. But it's hard work getting there.
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:58 pm (UTC)
I think pretty much everyone I know, regardless of their supposed political standpoint, who has actually worked with people form poor estates and areas of social deprivation, feels as we broadly do.
(no subject) - moussaka_thief - Aug. 9th, 2011 02:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
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strange_complex
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:48 pm (UTC)
I often find myself thinking of you as the voice of London - the city personified. This sort of post is why. I was actually thinking back to your posts in the wake of the 7/7 bombings this morning, and hoping that you would write something similarly perceptive, and similarly capturing the feeling of the city, about the current riots. You have far exceeded my expectations - and, like others, I shall be linking to this post elsewhere. It really deserves to be widely read.
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 01:58 pm (UTC)
Bloody hell. Thank you.
(no subject) - the_omega_man - Aug. 10th, 2011 12:13 am (UTC) - Expand
spangle_kitten
Aug. 9th, 2011 02:07 pm (UTC)
Here via bluekeiran ~ really interesting post. I've been there too, though after the damage is done the law firm I work for used to do criminal legal aid work, so I worked with a lot of criminals and drug addicts. So many were beyond hope, but there are the occasional few that do change. We don't do legal aid any more (various reasons, mainly cuts to budgets) but a chap who used to be in and out of jail like a yoyo came in to see me on Monday to tell me how he's turned himself around and has taken an interest in history and now spends all his time in the library.

Social change is needed. With the way things are handled at the moment like you say, with kids leaving school and going straight on the dole meaning immigrants are needed to do the jobs, and racism meaning "white on black", there will never be any movement. Structural change is also needed, like you say our justice system encourages recidivism, and the culture they go back to once out of jail is stagnent.

What has happened the last few days is appalling, and I wouldn't condem the actions of these people in any way, but there are reasons behind it that need to be addressed.
spangle_kitten
Aug. 9th, 2011 02:13 pm (UTC)
I should re-read post edits before hitting send...I would condemn these actions and not exonerate them in any way.
(no subject) - rosamicula - Aug. 9th, 2011 02:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aca - Aug. 9th, 2011 04:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
amuchmoreexotic
Aug. 9th, 2011 02:29 pm (UTC)
So was EMA a hand up or a handout? Was abolishing it a good idea?

If the underclass has been a problem since the 70s, why doesn't this sort of rioting happen under Labour governments? Is it just a coincidence that this happened now rather than 5 years ago?
hellsop
Aug. 9th, 2011 02:44 pm (UTC)
The problems have existed, but the means of remediation have vanished. Particularly, social things that benefit poorer people are almost invariably the ones first on the block when someone's looking for some budget to cut. Which means the things that might have otherwise kept frustration from reaching a boiling point get clipped away, until someone inevitably starts to boil.
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(Anonymous)
Aug. 9th, 2011 02:33 pm (UTC)
from another teacher...
Having taught for 16 years including Woolwich Arsenal, North London and Middlesborough and now in East London, I couldn't agree more. After what the government were doing to the pensions I felt so undervalued I was looking into leaving teaching out of protest for the lack of value placed on the profession. Now the riots have happened, I remember the government and conditions had nothing to do with why I became a teacher. When they come to school, it's all a lot of these kids have to enable them towards a better life than that of their parents. Less hand-outs and more opportunities would give more choice and self respect in places where it is severely lacking.
cookwitch
Aug. 11th, 2011 11:17 am (UTC)
Re: from another teacher...
*applause* from a latecomer. That is a lovely, heartfelt comment.
splendorsine
Aug. 9th, 2011 02:33 pm (UTC)
One of the best things I've ever read. Forget the "on this subject" proviso...
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 02:55 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
(Anonymous)
Aug. 9th, 2011 02:36 pm (UTC)
Hiya Miss L! No one who had you as a teacher would EVER throw a petrol bomb - seriously! Love you, Neens xxx
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 02:56 pm (UTC)
Hey! I LOVE that comment! And congrats on the photography results, too.
medusa
Aug. 9th, 2011 02:56 pm (UTC)
I've posted this to Twitter - hope you don't mind! :)
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 03:01 pm (UTC)
Nope, I'm delighted. Thank you!
Paul Betts
Aug. 9th, 2011 03:09 pm (UTC)
concisely put!
Sadly the observation you make might never become popular knowledge, but feel confident that I too agree with your observations and have passed on your eloquently put
elucidation of the London riots.
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 03:12 pm (UTC)
Re: concisely put!
Thank you!
Re: concisely put! - Paul Betts - Aug. 9th, 2011 03:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Anonymous)
Aug. 9th, 2011 03:15 pm (UTC)
I was passed this via bluekieran and i have to say this is one of the most sincere and honest appraisals of the situation and its roots that i have read on the subject, if only more people shared your views (and insight)!

Thank you
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 03:18 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading!
(Anonymous)
Aug. 9th, 2011 03:25 pm (UTC)
Great post - thank you
"What these riots - which aren't demonstrations, but parties got out of hand, with fires and prizes - is the degree of alienation from their own communities, their inability to acknowledge that they are part of any community. They also don't see themselves as angry or even oppressed, because they cannot look beyond the circumstances they are in and the peer pressures around them."

You only have to listen to the two girls recorded for the news to realise this. It is the true picture, and listening all day to the various recipes for improvement propounded by political and social "experts" has filled me with hopelessness.

Thank you for this. Will link.
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 03:27 pm (UTC)
Re: Great post - thank you
Thank you!
Re: Great post - thank you - (Anonymous) - Aug. 13th, 2011 08:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Great post - thank you - (Anonymous) - Aug. 13th, 2011 08:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
cyberspice
Aug. 9th, 2011 03:39 pm (UTC)
An awesome piece of writing.

Both my mother and my sister were/are teachers. My mother in the past, taught in a class of poor, white, teenage mothers. My sister teaches in a multi-cultural school in a poor area in North London. I love hearing of their success stories.

I will link.
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 03:47 pm (UTC)
Thank you - and lovely to see you here. I miss lot of folks like you not posting, because I am marooned in the 'burbs and horribly out of touch. xx
ramtops
Aug. 9th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC)
Brilliant, just brilliant.

p.s. I'm a governor in an inner city multi-racial primary school, and I love it.
rosamicula
Aug. 9th, 2011 03:48 pm (UTC)
Thanks lovely. Glad you approve of me avoiding sorting my website out by blethering on here:-)
(no subject) - ramtops - Aug. 9th, 2011 03:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
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