Schooled in self-obsession
A teacher asks whether an education system which over-flatters the young contributed to the riots.
Many commentators have been quick to identify unemployment, poverty and public-service cutbacks as the catalysts for the English riots. Young people, we’re told, have no hope or prospects and their lashing out was the logical conclusion to their being ignored by the government. Some people have rolled out an old Martin Luther King quote – ‘A riot is the language of the unheard’ – to make robbing JD Sports seem like a noble political act. Everywhere one turns, a left-wing commentator is indulging in ‘poverty leads to rioting’ determinism.
It’s an understandable reaction. Many on the left are rightly suspicious when individuals are held responsible for social problems. Blaming individuals for the rundown character of inner cities, as many on the right have tended to do, distracts from a serious debate about living conditions and economic opportunities. Nevertheless, claiming that youth unemployment explains all sorts of antisocial behaviour, as some on the left do, is also shortsighted. It doesn’t explain, for instance, why some unemployed people decide to combust local shops but others do not. If unemployment has such a nihilistic influence on the young, why haven’t Spanish youth, whose unemployment rate is 46 per cent, reacted in the same way as those in Tottenham and Hackney?
Some young people, asked by journalists why they rioted, blamed their violence on the scrapping of the educational maintenance allowance (EMA), the hike in university tuition fees or rising youth unemployment. These apparently radical platitudes sound obviously rehearsed, designed to please liberal journalists. And what is even more notable is the extent to which the rioting youth seek to avoid responsibility for their actions. Indeed, many teens who thought that looting was harmless fun have since seemed shocked to discover that they will now be held accountable for what they did. It was this sense of ‘we can do what we want’, as one of the blasé looters told the media, combined with the withdrawal of police authority, which led to thousands of young people going on the rampage.
No doubt there was a hardcore of repeat delinquents smashing in windows. But many more of the rioters seemed like the normal, and likeable, teenagers that I have taught in schools in London over the past decade. In the capital, some 91 per cent of the riotous offenders were under 25, many of them aged between 16 and 18. As one commentator quickly observed, this means they were all educated under the New Labour government (1997 to 2010). It makes you wonder what they learnt at their New Labour-era hi-tech schools. Perhaps the real lesson they learnt is that nothing should be allowed to dent their self-esteem, and nobody should ever be allowed to ‘victimise’ or ‘bully’ them or prevent them from doing what they like.
In recent years, young people have internalised a corrosive sense of entitlement, where they really do believe that the world owes me, me, me a living. Since this retrograde outlook is far more institutionalised in London’s education system than elsewhere in Britain, it is not that surprising that a hardcore of rioting took place in the capital rather than in, say, Scottish cities. Their education system is largely separate from England’s.
‘New Labour kids’ have been more flattered, mollycoddled and freed of responsibilities than any generation before them. These days, as young people progress through the education system, they learn that there is a whole raft of medical reasons why they can’t write neatly or behave properly in class. They also know that if their exam grades are slightly disappointing, they can always blame the teachers. And New Labour’s social-inclusion charter also means that schools cannot automatically throw kids out, even in the sixth form, for not working hard enough or for their poor behaviour. Local education authorities can fight to ensure that a suspended child is reinstated and then attack the school for failing to provide ‘adequate support’ to address the pupil’s ‘psychological issues’.
Historically, one of the functions of schools has been to teach children the importance of personal responsibility. Punctuality, enforcing homework deadlines and reining in disruptive behaviour are all important mechanisms for socialising young people. School is not about teaching kids to be blindly obedient to authority, of course, but it should guide them towards becoming morally autonomous individuals with a sense of responsibility to themselves and to others. However, New Labour’s therapeutic framework, which has infected a great deal of England’s education system, has effectively destroyed these civilising values. As any teacher will tell you, teenagers are now strikingly adept at screeching from the therapeutic hymn sheet. The ‘how dare you?!’ line they indignantly trot out effectively says: ‘How dare you pass judgement on or criticise me? It will damage my self-esteem.’
It is in this educational context that the introduction of the educational maintenance allowance (EMA) was a wrongheaded initiative. The EMA provided working-class school students between the ages of 16 and 18 with up to £30 a week if they turned up to lessons. Last week, Labour’s Harriet Harman ludicrously suggested on BBC TV’s Newsnight that the Lib-Con coalition government’s abolition of the EMA at the end of last year was a bad thing, possibly even causing the recent rioting. But what was positive about bribing working-class students to stay on at school? Such a system contributed to the sense of entitlement that has corrupted some young people.
Prior to the introduction of the EMA in 2002, the fact that less well-off sixth formers had to make-do-and-mend for another two years of schooling made them think carefully about the value of education and self-sacrifice. It also taught teenagers to be self-reliant and to seek out ways to earn cash, from Saturday jobs to babysitting. Far from making these students take their education more seriously, the EMA became something of a joke, with many teachers hearing the refrain: ‘I’m only here for the EMA.’ The allowance had the effect of undermining Further Education institutions, which came to be seen by some students as a soft touch, places you went just to make sure you got your government allowance at the end of the week. If education was so important to the EMA-demanding rioters of last week, why didn’t any of them loot Waterstone’s?
Such retrograde trends in the English education system are only a reflection of the diminution of individual responsibility in society more broadly. The source of adult authority in society was once derived either from conservative traditional values or from trade union-based, class solidarity. But with the implosion of the latter, particularly its complete lack of influence on young people today, the nihilism that we have seen in recent days on the streets of London and Manchester has been allowed to grow. Class solidarity, identifying with others, was once a powerful, binding force for working people. The ravages and insecurities of the market meant that wage-workers identified with each other in a very fundamental way – not as victims, but as active agents who, by helping each other out, could make surviving capitalism that bit easier. The shared understanding that everybody was only one wage away from penury meant that protecting one’s own and other people’s livelihoods was seen as sacred. In communities where the nature of work was arduous and dangerous, for example in coalmines or heavy industry, the sense of solidarity was even more powerful.
The decline of class solidarity seems to have gone hand-in-hand with the rise in antisocial behaviour in inner cities in the 1990s. Add to this the corrupting influence of therapy culture and we can see the serious disintegration of once-strong community bonds. Today, self-esteem, rather than solidarity, has become a new kind of authority, questioned by no one. As a cornerstone of post-New Labour New Britain, therapy culture, now conveyed through the curriculum in England’s schools, impacts negatively on civilised norms and acts as an invitation to morally dubious individuals to make personal gain at others’ expense. The looting in England was a visible, extreme, thoroughly nasty expression of this decadent trend.
If anything positive is to come from recent events, it should surely be the asking of hard questions about the way children are being socialised in schools. Abolishing the EMA was a positive step towards ending the preposterous mollycoddling that has gone on for too long. Likewise, the promotion of victimology in English schools, whether in its therapeutic or multiculturalist form, should be scrapped, as it too encourages a fatalistic mindset in the young. Education cannot compensate for the decline of social solidarities, but it can still instil the value of taking responsibility for your actions. In the long run, that is a far better preventative measure to antisocial behaviour than any lengthy custodial sentences.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.
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