I predict a riot

Actually, I didn’t predict the London riots, but at least I had the excuse that I was abroad, on holiday. Whilst I was away, I watched Question Time on the BBC Parliament channel (it’s amazing that I have a girlfriend, isn’t it?), and from listening to those sage political commentators, you’d be convinced that each of them had predicted these precise events a long time ago. Many of them (Prescott, Paddick etc) spoke of a kind of inevitability about the London riots, which was surprising, as no-one to my knowledge had warned the country of this powder keg about to blow at any point before certain areas of the capital were on fire, by which time most people would agree that it was a little late. The shocking events of last week are made even more shocking by the fact that they came as a surprise to most people.

Public (and media) reaction has broadly fallen into two wildly simplistic categories. The liberal view is that we have a mass of young people (mainly young black males) that have been ‘failed by society’. This failed by society line (henceforth to be known as FBS) is trotted out often, but no-one has yet to give a satisfactory answer as to what it means. Still, it sounds good, and it gave the Guardian a chance to wheel Russell Brand out to emphasise the FBS point. Mr Brand clearly gave so many soundbites after the death of Amy Winhouse that he’s now required to comment on all major news stories. I await his coverage of the US presidential race with baited breath. Back to the main point, but in what way has society failed these young rioters? One news channel suggested that it was the fault of the ‘nice things’ industry, which has created ‘must-have’ items such as iphones and D+G clothing. The theory is that young people cannot afford these things, therefore their self-worth is defated, meaning there is nothing left for them to do but smash things, and nick things. Does anyone actually believe this is the truth? There’s lots of things that I can’t afford (a yacht, for example), but you won’t see me down at Brighton Marina at midnight in a hoodie, making off with someone else’s.

Having nice things doesn’t make you happy and content. These young people are angry because they don’t aspire to anything, and the majority of the fault lies with the parents. Quality parenting is about setting your child up well for life, and guiding your child as best you can until you are able to remove the stabilisers, and they are free to make their own way in society. This usually means some form of understanding of what is right and wrong, a respect for your fellow human beings, and a little bit of education along the way. Is that too much to ask? Only yesterday, my hairdresser was bemoaning the fact that so many of her friends are pregnant (they’re all about 21, and the babies are unplanned in general; I did a bit of research). Why are these people so happy to have kids, when they’re generally so unhappy with the raising them properly bit? True satisfaction comes from earning things: not having them given to you, and not from nicking them. There’s a good message from which to start. Labour were totally wrong in the assertion that 50% of people going to university would be a good thing. In fact, fewer people going to university would be a good thing, and more people doing apprenticeships and learning a trade would be an even better thing. All young people have talents, and the sooner they find out what they are good at the better.

On the flip side to the liberals and their seeking to justify this behaviour comes the ‘lock em up and throw away the key’ brigade. Those that think it’s reasonable to lock up two morons from Cheshire for 4 years each for trying to incite a riot via facebook. I don’t know what’s more tragic, the long sentence or the fact that nobody came. This knee-jerk reaction attempts to placate a public that is baying for blood, but we cannot allow public opinion to override rational decision-making. Handing out over-tough sentences as an ‘example’ has been proved not to work; someone isn’t going to refrain from hurling a brick through a window because the sentence length for criminal damage has increased by 33% in recent times. We need to consider the root causes of this anti-social behaviour to prevent it – to cure the cause, not to hammer the consequence.

We are a confused country. Are you proud to be British? Am I? Do we know what it means? The spectacular failure of Cameron’s Big Society suggests that the Thatcherite ideal of greed is good still looms large over the country. Better parenting to start, more opportunities for kids to learn a trade early, less emphasis on having to go to university (fewer universities even) and far less exposure for Russell Brand.

That can’t be too tricky, can it? Or maybe Huxley had the best idea after all?

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Young is wasted on the Youth

As a mild-mannered individual, there’s really very little that winds me up. There’s a whole raft of little niggles; people who describe sportsmen/sporting acts as ‘world class’ and people who look at the desserts first on a menu are just two, but I can live with that, and apart from the involuntary curl of the top lip, these gripes tend to pass me by.

I watched a little of the ‘Toby Young sets up a Free School’ programme last week, and despite the fact that I was only half watching, the man and his ideals really grated with me. The premise was that Toby (restaurant critic and occasional columnist/minor reality TV channel 5-based celebrity) had suddently become impassioned with the need to challenge the British education system, and felt that the Free Schools programme was the way to do this. In case you weren’t aware, the idea behind Free Schools is that anyone can set up a School, so long as they make their bid to the Government, have a building, a curriculum and some teachers. They are supposed to be ‘all-ability, state-funded Schools set up as a result of parental demand’. This is a classic example of the ‘idea that sounds good when sold to the man on the street’, but is in fact so flawed as to be laughable. It’s a bit like the Labour ideal of 50% of people going to university, which sounds good until you realise that there aren’t any more good jobs out there than before, except now people are required to get into heavy debt gaining meaningless degrees from the university of Luton before they are able to get out into the work place and get the same job/earn the same amount of money as they would have done before their 3 year life hiatus.

Anyway, Toby’s point was that education has lost its way. Fair enough; in many ways it has. We could attack grade inflation, oversized classrooms, untrained teachers, the irrelevance of parts od the National Curriculum. Unfortunately, in the most myopic way possible, he decided that the reason it had lost its way could essentially be summed up by his own experience, which involved being un-motivated by teachers (no word of his own or his parents’ responsibility), and achieving no real grades at all. Now most people would have said at this point that if the teachers were not motivating, we should look to either swap the teachers we have (not realistic) or invest money in making the teachers we have better (realistic, relatively cheap and emintently sensible). Incidentally, Toby, this is where the real problem lies, in the lack of quality in some areas of the teaching profession, and the lack of structure in the homes of many young people.

This may not have made such good TV however, so Toby’s point was that we needed to re-structure the curriculum so that there was more rigour, and this included harking back to what he called a ‘classical education’. Not sure if he knew what he meant by this, but it enabled him to sound knowledgable from behind his spcs. This also sounded suspiciously like the curriculum that a middle-aged man who had ballsed up his School career would like to go back to School to study, but this may be due to the fact that Toby has no experience of Schools, teaching, the education process, motivation of young minds or any research into what actually makes pupils want to learn.

No-one would ever allow the public to set up their own defence academies, or their own hospitals, thinking that having a passion and a misguided sense of what was wrong with the MOD or NHS would be a sensible idea, though with education it seems fair game. It’s the equivalent of that bloke in the pub who spends all his time criticising the England team, claiming to anyone who will listen that all we need are ‘real Englishmen with passion’. His pub team?

I did think that I might have been a bit harsh on Toby, so I went to his Free School website, which has a 7 minute clip of him on the homepage. This was his chance to change my mind, to prove to me that it was the education of the nation that he really cared about, rather than keeping his TV career away from channel 5. ‘Motivation…classical curriculum…soundbite…soundbite…3 minute story about arriving in the wrong Welsh village…end’. Toby, drop me an email, and I’ll speak to you about education. It’s something I know about. You can then tell me all about celebrity come dine with me, which is something you know about. Let’s not move too far outside our respective spheres of expertise.