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A sledgehammer to crack a nut

By 28 April 2012No Comments

Society hits a crisis and the default position is to demand schools solve the problem.
Internationally uncompetitive: make foreign languages compulsory for all.   Drugs addiction costing society too hefty a price: a compulsory drugs element in Personal and Social Education.  Too many obese kids: two hours compulsory PE each week.  It’s almost always a sledge-hammer to crack a nut and there’s never any suggestion of what ought to be omitted from the curriculum to make way for this latest, new priority.
The most recent such offering was from someone who usually knows better.  Harry Reid, author, former editor of The Herald and a man of balanced arguments, looks askance at recent urban riots.  He identifies the roots of the rioting in a range of causes: ill-prepared police, unemployment, the loss of social cohesion and he calls for renewal.  “The key component in the renewal is better education.  A decent education is something that far too many young people in Britain are still denied despite the mind-bending sums of money that have been spent …”
Harry Reid is right.  Social cohesion and social responsibility are being dissipated.  He also notes that religion, once a social cement, is no longer the power it was.  (True, certainly of the Christian religion.)  But a series of other changes, some for the better, some for the worse, have contributed to this summer’s lawlessness.  While neither a reason nor excuse, it is also necessary to remember that summer riots in the most deprived communities have been a recurring part of modern American history for several decades.
Unemployment has of course risen dramatically.  There was of course mass unemployment in the 1930s and no parallel incidents.  Eighty years ago however aspirations were different.
Today, in de-industrialised Britain, we produce next to no real wealth.  There is no half-finished boat on the stocks to maintain hope that work might return.  In many cases these are young people from families which have been workless for generations.
Today we have a generation raised on a high-expectations consumer culture.  It is bombarded with propaganda suggesting that status comes with possessing high cost items, whether trainers, clothes or the latest mega-television set.  It also sees success measured in multi-million bonuses for those whom even the least educated can recognise as having a major responsibility for the current  economic crisis.
Today poverty is exacerbated by racism.  Without detracting for a moment from the courage of many of the police officers facing the mobs, it is also the case that many of the most hopeless teenagers have been soured by daily examples of police racism.
Today fame and celebrity are touted as values and aspirations in themselves.  And there must be some brief, local celebrity for the petrol-bomber or the leader of the looting mob.
Today we have increasing numbers of young people raised in families where adult authority is seldom exercised with finesse or effectiveness.  Mothers desperately seek to hold households together and a series of vague father-figures drift in and out of young people’s lives.  Teenagers with no norm of respecting adult authority in the home are hardly likely to respect it in the streets when the flames are burning and the adrenalin pounding.
Schools have a role in healing a fractured society but before they can even contemplate going beyond applying a few sticking plasters, a wider consensus requires to be reached.  What kind of society do we want?  What is the relationship between education and work and between work and reward?  On what ethical standards will society be built?  Not much from the politicians or the newspaper editors on these issues.
The above article was first published in SecEd on 15 September 2011:;category_uid=115;section=Opinion

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