Inside the mind of a young rioter #manchesterriots #londonriots

Like most of the UK (and beyond), I’ve spent the last 5 days watching with dismay as England has descended into widespread looting, arson & violence. It’s been a shocking example of just how thin the bubble of civilised society is and just how close we live to something akin to Lord Of The Flies.  

After the initial shock (and anger as the criminality hit my home town on Tuesday night) has started to dissipate I’m less and less surprised at what has happened. Obviously I would never condone the trouble that we have seen, but I think I can begin to understand why the ‘rioters’ decided to take part, particularly the younger offenders.

I’ve worked for the past 8 years in inner city comprehensive schools in Manchester. All the schools have made remarkable contributions to the lives of the young people who pass through their door. And I’ll make it clear now that these views are my own and do not reflect on individual pupils that I work with today. I would like to think this experience gives me a fair insight into the minds of some of the young people (and adults) who trashed Manchester & Salford city centre on Tuesday night.

There are a number of contributing factors, but two overarching ones in my opinion.

  • Disparity of wealth & opportunity increases day by day.
  • There has been a significant change for the worse in family stability & structure over the last 20 years.

Again, neither of these could ever be considered reason to go out and loot business, burn cars or throw bricks at the police, but they can help us understand why a young person might choose to do so.

We see every day on the news examples of the increasing disparity of wealth in this country, from the wages of football players to MPs expenses to the Banking Crisis. The latter in particular has had a huge affect on the lowest rungs of the prosperity ladder in this country. Unemployment is up, inflation is increasing whilst wages stagnate. Budget cuts are disproportionately harsh to low income, young people. Cuts to EMA (1), Connexions (2), school budgets (3) (Mr Gove’s Pupil Premium (4) does not make up for the losses that inner city school’s have suffered to their main budgets) and latterly youth services etc via Council budgets (5) affect the young and the poor. The raise in tuition fees makes University seem like a distant dream to many inner city pupils, there may be grants available but all a young person sees is £7000 a year. Many of the young people in inner city Manchester and cities across the country are growing up in households with 3 generations of unemployed, aspirations can’t be expected to be high in such an environment. It is, without doubt, a bleaker looking future for any young person in this country at the moment, one that has got considerably bleaker over the past 1-2 years.

Listen to the first minute or so of this interview on the streets of London on Tuesday:

The man makes some great points about MP expenses, bankers greed & police taking payment from newspapers. Press coverage of these events over the past 2 years has made it quite clear that the majority of these people way way up the socio-economic ladder got away with their crimes. Greed certainly played a part in the looting that was seen – so much of it being for items that the looters desired – trainers, TVs etc.. Add to that the worrying statistic that of the 333 deaths in police custody (6) since 1998 which have lead to zero police prosecutions. My Maths brain suggests that the probability of all 333 of them having been due to unavoidable accidents or natural causes is slim. 

As far as other reasons for poor relationships with the police – It’s not my area of expertise. Calling them the ‘feds’ is interesting but I’m not sure how significant. Does the excessive use of stop & search described in this article explain the hatred some people have for the police? I’m not sure, it’s not an issue I’ve hear young people I’ve worked with complain about. We’re lucky to have an amazing school based police officer who builds quality relationships with our pupils – perhaps we’re lucky?

And that article brings me nicely on to families & parenting.  Traditional, stable family structures have slowly been dissolving across the country for many years. Not just in terms of 2 parents with 2.4 children, but also in terms of extended family support. Many of the youth of today come from single parent families, many spend their spare time caring for younger siblings as their parents work. This has undoubtably lead to a decrease in parenting skills and parenting time and in turn young people’s behaviour. I don’t believe that schools are to blame here, although the education system should take some of the blame, more on that next. There is nothing worse as a teacher than making a phone call home to an unruly or disengaged pupil at the start of the year and to speak to a parent that either does not have the skills to influence their child or does not have the will to do so. If a pupil does not care about a parent’s opinions or knows that they will not be disciplined at home then a school has very little power over their behaviour. We can verbally dress down a pupil or give them a detention (without even 24hrs notice – that’ll sort it Mr Gove!), but really pupil’s have heard it all before and can happily switch off whilst being told off, or whilst sat in a detention. However if they respect their parents, and care about their opinion, then the job is so much easier. We of course work with every student and try to give them a moral and social perspective of their actions, but without a stable and supportive parental backstop it is incredibly difficult. So many young parents have been through the same system that the problem is being exacerbated. 

The education system does have an impact. And could fill an entire (already planned!) blog post on it’s own. High stakes testing and league tables lower the quality, breadth, creativity and engagement of the curriculum in the UK. School’s focus is inevitably drawn towards certain groups of pupils and certain aspects of the curriculum so that they can ‘excel’ by these artificial measures. The continued devaluation of quality vocational education in preference to the traditional English Baccalaureate style curriculum restricts suitable choices for young people and reduces engagement in education. Attacks on teachers pensions and working conditions will lead to us losing quality teachers. This all contributes to disengagement with education. There is no huge secret that the much lauded Finnish education system is incredibly successful for two major reasons. Teaching is an incredibly high profile, prestigious career that attracts the finest work force. Testing is kept to a complete minimum, teachers are given the freedom to teach an engaging and creative curriculum and the professional respect & trust to monitor pupil progress without high stakes testing (7). 

I hope that this puts into some perspective the England that a swathe of our young people live in. Disengaged from education, often with parents who were also disengaged from education, with little prospect of a prosperous career whilst living in a consumerist nation where the rich are getting richer and richer and seem to be getting away with their misdemeanours. 

Society’s defense against this criminality and mob rule are the police, the law, and the criminal justice system. What seems to have happened this week is that a large number of people have lost their belief/fear/respect for this system. There will always be criminals who make a conscious decision to go out and commit a crime, and I’m use that they have been responsible for ring leading much of the trouble. But bored young people have gone out for the ‘entertainment’ of seeing what was happening and have then chosen to join in in the heat of the moment, genuinely not fearing or thinking about the consequences of their actions. Read about this account from a rioter in the Toxteth Riots back in 1981. 

“I went along in 1981 because I was swept away by the mind-blowing buzz of mob mayhem. There’s no justifying that – in the crudest terms such behaviour is quite simply wrong – but try telling that to a 15-year-old on a mountain bike. To him or her, it’s like a Wii game come to life – a hyper-real version of GTA. You taunt the police until they chase you, then you leg it and regroup. Some of the more radical kids will throw rocks and set cars and wheelie bins alight to get them going, but sooner or later the "bizzies” (police) will charge.“

And then listen to the strangely succinct reasoning of this young Mancunian rioter.

"Why are you going to miss the opportunity to get free stuff?"  "It’s the Government innit? More kids don’t want to go to college cos they don’t get paid innit” “The Government aren’t in control.” “I told my Nan I’m here, she said get home, I said nah and put the phone down” “This’ll be my first offense so I’m not really bothered, the prisons are overcrowded, what they gonna do? Give me an Asbo? I’m not bothered.”

When you are poorly educated, have a lack of support at home, and a bleak outlook, a criminal record doesn’t look like the deterrent it does for you and I.

I’ll say it again, I’m not looking to condone or even sympathise with those who have chosen to go out to rob, burn and beat. But to ignore the underlying social issues in England is shortsighted and will only lead to more disturbing breakdowns of social order in the future.

As I’ve been writing this it’s becoming more and more apparent how many older and employed people have been involved and latterly charged with theft and other offenses (8). It’s a disturbing trend. My best guess is that many of them got caught up in the moment, just as the younger people did. It’s amazing just how much a mob mentality took over. Every teacher in the land has seen this in action when there is a fight or confrontation in the playground. Even the most sensible students will swarm around like moths to a flame whilst the more unruly will egg on the two at the centre of the incident. Fights can often take place that the two involved in never wanted to happen, just from the intense peer pressure of those around them. I suspect Blackberry’s BBM also added to this. It is the number one method of communication for young people today, instant, private one to many messaging, I’m sure it played a large part in the rioters ability to organise from one shop to the next.

So why riot? Boredom, peer pressure, consumerism & greed, low ambitions and no fear of the consequences. It doesn’t quite sound enough, but combined it seems to have been.

I’ve rambled a bit here, but it’s a complex and game-changing issue. Who’d have thought a week ago that so many people would so readily step outside of the boundaries of civilised society? A disturbing few days where we mustn’t assume the problem is gone when we’ve locked up a chunk of the offenders and police levels have returned to normal.

What priorities for those of us working in schools come September? Engaging again with our pupils, reflecting on what went on, looking at the impact it’s had on communities and most importantly of all working with our parents and engaging them as closely as possible in the education and future of their children. Most of all giving them the skills and drive to succeed in these difficult economic times.

(1): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-12881747

(2): http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jul/18/connexions-cuts-clearing-students

(3): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-13346238

(4): http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/premium/a0076063/pupil-premium-what-you-need-to-know

(5): http://www.guardian.co.uk/local-government-network/poll/2011/aug/02/poll-youth-services-knife-crime

(6): http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/dec/03/deaths-police-custody-officers-convicted

(7): http://boingboing.net/2011/07/21/finlands-high-qualit.html

(8): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14495104

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