Sunday, 1 April 2012

It’s not just ‘problem families’ who need to develop character.

The Riots, Communities and Victims Panel have identified as part of their investigation into the causes of the August riots 500,000 ‘forgotten families’ who have been let down by the education system and social services. They cite poor parenting and a lack of opportunities for young people from this group combined with ineffective policing as being amongst the causes of the riots.

Chair Darra Singh told the BBC ‘We must give everyone a stake in society. There are people bumping along the bottom, unable to change their lives. When people don’t feel they have a reason to stay out of trouble the consequences for communities can be devastating.’

Amongst the proposals the panel are likely to make when their report if published are for local authorities to do more to identify and support problem families, protecting young people from aggressive advertising and improving relations between the police and the BME community. All very worthy I’m sure, but to get notices outside Whitehall a report has to stir up a little controversy, this one does not disappoint.

For a start the contents have been leaked to Sky News, even though his public position is that this has a negative impact on the panel’s ability to ‘give a voice to the communities and victims of the August riots’ Chair Darra Singh is smart enough to know that if it had stayed under wraps until its official publication the ‘voice’ provided by the report would have probably been stifled. Hence also the inclusion of the suggestion that primary schools should be fined if their students fail to reach the required level of literacy and that schools in general should do more to teach develop the ‘character’ of their charges.

Let’s pick some of this apart, when it comes to heaping blame on schools I’m with David Lammy, MP for Tottenham where the riots began and one of the more lucid commentators on the issue since when he says that is ‘a bit unfair.’ The best, most inspiring, teaching in the world is rendered ineffective if a student lacks application and comes from a family background where education isn’t valued.

Mr Lammy is also right when he points out that many of the rioters were old enough to know better; in fact some of them were old enough to have sciatica and grey hair. As he puts it these were ‘people in their thirties and forties who did not feel they had a sufficient stake in society and were certainly prepared to stick tow fingers up at society as a whole.

The report is right to identify a growing number of families slipping through the societal net, but fatally flawed if it thinks the solution is to ‘do’ something with or to those families to bring them back into line. The solution lies in working with troubled families and communities to give them a sense of agency over their lives, a process that could take decades and doesn’t fit easily with tabloid wails that ‘something must be done’; even if it turns out to be the wrong thing.

I am also somewhat dubious about the idea of schools teaching their students to have ‘character’, not least since there is a risk that some people on the right will interpret that as teaching them to ‘know their place.’

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the report’s conclusions though is that they seem to ignore the wider malaise afflicting our society. Without exception the institutions of our country fail to inspire even the most basic level of trust.

The government is mired in corruption with the chance to have dinner with the Prime Minister being hawked to the highest bidder in return for a donation to the Tory Party coffers. Elsewhere Chancellor George Osborne seems not to have realised that a footling measure regarding VAT on pasties would seem like a tax on the pleasures of the poor to a public enraged by his budget and silly Francis Maude caused widespread panic with his advice that in the event of a strike by tanker drivers people should hoard petrol in jerry cans.

Things are no better on the Labour benches, despite leader Ed Milliband finally seeming to find his feet over the budget the party has managed through a mixture of complacency and an inability to communicate with voters to lose one of its safest seats to George Galloway.

I’m not a believer but I feel deeply sorry for those people who turn to the Church of England for comfort and inspiration during these difficult times only to find that it is too busy squabbling amongst itself over gay marriage, women bishops and a lot of other things the rest of society accepted years ago to notice.

The BBC has all but given up on making the sort of dramas and documentaries that encourage its audience to explore challenging ideas or to take a critical look at the world around them; instead it pumps out antiseptic drivel just like all the other stations. As for coverage of current affairs, television and press alike have dumbed their output down to a level where even the lowest common denominator feels his or her intelligence is being insulted.

The list goes on and as I write it my blood bubbles like lava inside a volcano. Perhaps it isn’t just ‘feral’ kids on rough estates who need lessons in character; maybe our political and cultural elite need a little tuition too.

They need to develop an understanding of the experiences, hopes and fears of the people outside the charmed circle they inhabit. That can’t be done through focus groups and consultations; it can only be done by engaging with the man and woman in the street; especially when they say things you don’t want to hear.

The riots of last summer were an embarrassment for Britain as a country and a devastating blow for communities already struggling with entrenched deprivation. They were also a wake up call to our complacent leaders, if we can’t find a way of lifting everyone up together; then we will all surely go down into chaos together.

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