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Most of the kids are alright

This is a cross post from Rosamicula

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. A lot of you thought that’s whom I used to teach, but I taught the ones who scraped through with low grades and did vocational courses, or who resat their GCSEs in the hope fo 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, 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 can’t 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’ve 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. They were coming in to fill gaps in the UK labour market. We kick twenty percent of our kids out of school illiterate, innumerate and socially dysfunctional, then we import people to the lowgrade jobs those kids can’t 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 came away from school with 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, depicts themselves 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 mismanaged sector of the education system: the FE sector. I’ve taught the ‘unteachable’, despite being punched, kicked, 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 that language is a wardrobe of many costumes, and that your life is a great deal richer – and so 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.