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EducationHolyrood MagazineScotland

School's out for summer

By 11 February 2012No Comments

England’s summer riots have left a few smug grins on Scots faces.  That they have not occurred here is no cause for major rejoicing.  I don’t defend these events but they had a certain warped sense of carnival.  Somehow that ebullience doesn’t quite fit the Scottish psyche.  Mass violence and crime here tend to come with a darker aspect.
There is no simple explanation for the riots, nor any simple solution.  Those who hark back to a golden age of social tranquillity and those seeking an easy sound-bite should not pretend there is.
There are however readily identifiable components.  Those teaching in schools, especially in Scotland’s poorer communities, will recognise these as characteristic of many of our young people also.
There is carelessness over consequences and contempt for anyone attempting to insist on imposing consequences.   They have seldom had to face the serious consequences of their own actions.  The easy explanation is poor parenting: uninformed and unsupported parenting rather.  I’ve seen them in my office, the mothers who insist they can do nothing with their 13 year old.  Unfortunately, they could do nothing with him when he was eleven or nine.  Usually it’s a mother struggling alone or at least without a consistently present partner.  Often she will be fairly young, have little support from any extended family and may have been in trouble herself as a teenager.
There is also hopelessness.  In our poorest estates three generations of families never to have known permanent employment is common.  Neither the cuts nor poverty triggered these events but the sustained sense of being part of a workless culture is corrosive.  The normal disciplines of getting out of bed, of being clean and smart are missing and the positive consequences of work, a wage packet, personal pride, putting something back, are unknown.  As the reality of this economic crisis bites, even optimistic teenagers from working families, will feel increasingly desperate.  For those with below-average educational qualifications, it is even worse.  The graduates take the jobs formerly taken by those with Highers, those with Highers take those formerly taken by those with Standard Grades.  The kids at the bottom know they will get nothing.
It’s also about contrasts.  We inhabit an acquisitive society.  A person’s worth is measured by what he or she can buy.  The power of advertising pumps out the message.  You are somebody if you own the latest fashion item.  You’re no-one if you don’t.   The fat bonuses however are still paid to the bankers who caused the first wave of the crisis.
The one issue that is less prominent here is race.  That’s not because there’s no racism.  There is but it’s presently perhaps more anti-Polish than anti-black.  The ethnic mix however is differently proportioned and the systematic racism and harassment suffered by black kids here is a less potent fuel than down south.
There’s no simple answer but these events have illustrated a moral and political vacuum at the heart of our society.  Schools can’t solve the problem but if we are committed to the concept of responsible citizens there needs to be an open civic debate about what kind of country and world we want.   Either it’s less unequal, more committed to social justice, willing to tax and redistribute wealth, or the simmering anger here may emulate that in England.  On the other hand, adults, and especially but not exclusively men, need to reassert and insist on exercising authority, offer role models of care, affection and hard work and putting children at the centre of our lives, or we will rear another generation of hedonists and narcissists.
This article first appeared in Holyrood Magazine on 5 September 2011:

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