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The Summer of Discontent

Jill Robson

I read with interest last month’s web article by Jae Bray entitled “When good teaching and behaviour management strategies are not enough” which recorded a school’s attempts to deal with a minority of students who were badly behaved and disrupting the learning of others. It seemed particularly timely when the last month seems to have been monopolized in the press by the “riots” in London and other cities.

We have been subjected to news and debate over the so called “broken society” and the variety of opinion over the causes and solutions have gone on unabated for several weeks. The general agreement however seems to be that both the cause and the remedies of the situation are extremely complex and cannot be explained or solved simply. What we must remember is that as in school, the disruption came from a small minority, for every rioter there are many more young people who would never contemplate participating in crime.

However the sight of very young children, some as young as seven, taking part in activities such as smashing shop windows and looting is undoubtedly very disturbing. Many of the youngsters, who were filmed robbing and rioting seemed to fit the stereotype of angry and disengaged young people, whose indifference and disassociation from society will only lead to further trouble, if not addressed.

Sooner or later in issues where young people figure, the responsibility of the school and the education system, inevitably comes into the debate. I have listened to and read comment about the complete breakdown of discipline in schools which as teacher I don’t recognize. Admittedly I don’t work in any of the effected cities but through my educational networking, I know colleagues who do and they have never expressed the view, that their school was in such crisis.

Dr Rowan Williams the Archbishop of Canterbury was one of those who criticized England’s education system by arguing that children are being drilled to pass too many tests and exams at the expense of a rounded education. “Over the last two decades, many would agree that our educational philosophy at every level has been more and more dominated by an instrumentalist model; less and less concerned with a building of virtue, character and citizenship. One of the most significant questions that we ought to be addressing in the wake of these deplorable events is what kind of education we are interested in, for what kind of society. Are we prepared to think not only about discipline in classrooms, but also about the content and ethos of our educational institutions- asking can we once again build a society which takes seriously the task of educating its citizens, not consumers, not cogs in an economic system but citizens?”

There are many members in NAPCE who would echo his concerns. The work of the association over it’s entire existence has been to promote the personal and social aspects of education not at the expense of exam results but to support and enhance the student chances of achieving them. Eileen Donelly in her web article of November 2010 gives a detailed explanation of the teacher’s role in empowering young people to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood in order to assist their learning. It is this connection with our youngsters that we must succeed in making, if we are going to instill in them, a sense of their own worth.

It is likely that the younger rioters were driven, not totally, by the desire for a free pair of Nikes, an iPad or a Blackberry, but by the need for respect and acceptance by their peers. They want to be accepted, valued and included by others, as we all do, but in the absence of inclusion by society in general, they will seek it from “gang” membership.

The riots were a wake up call to society that there are too many people living on its margins and if we fail to include them and to ignore their needs then we do so at our peril. Whether our political leaders recognize the need for an inclusive approach in which young people’s varied skills, abilities and talents are recognized and valued remains to be seen. We as educators, need to continue to battle to gain the recognition that educating the heart, is as important as educating the mind.

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