Blaming others for the riots is a cop out. Kids are spoilt by schools

16th September 2011 at 01:00

Predictably, it only took a matter of hours for commentators to start blaming "a lack of discipline in schools" for the shocking summer riots. However, before teachers moan that yet again they are being blamed for society's failings, let's reflect on the crisis of adult authority as it's played out in schools.

Britain's classrooms are hardly the sites of full-scale riots. But which teacher didn't have a "too close to comfort" feeling when watching teenage looters defiantly staring down police officers who were seemingly reduced to a state of impotence? Witnessing those in charge unsure how to hold the line when faced with rampaging 13-year-olds, unsure even where to draw the line, is recognisable for anyone who works in schools. Teachers will also relate to police explanations offered for their inaction: the fear of being prosecuted for infringing suspects' rights; the paralysing burden of excessive health and safety regulations. Indeed, it is in schools that the young first encounter how risk aversion and an obsession with child protection can thwart adult authority. The corrosive impact of such policies on intergenerational relations means every act of discipline must be conducted through the bureaucratic book. Pupils and teachers eye each other suspiciously, one as potential abusers, the other wielding the threat of malicious allegations.

When authority is challenged, it is tempting to demand more powers, but I'm wary of such technical solutions. After all, the police already have more than enough draconian powers and scary riot gear to deal with the most feral teenagers. Schools, too, have been armed with a plethora of authoritarian powers over recent years. Tsars and Government inspectors have declared zero tolerance on even petty behaviour encroachments. There is tough talk of "three strikes and you're out"; teachers patrol the schoolyard issuing yellow cards. Teacher training courses teach little else beyond "behaviour management strategies". Some schools even lock school gates at lunchtime to stop kids causing a nuisance in local shops. Yet despite these measures, school discipline remains problematic. In fact, this ever-expanding disciplinary paraphernalia can prove counterproductive and rarely gets to the root of what undermines teachers' authority.

Too many new powers concentrate on disciplining wayward parents more than their children. Schools can issue court parenting orders and #163;1,000 fines. Tempting though it may be for teachers to deflect blame for their own inability to control today's young, this is a cop out. Worse, this approach betrays adult solidarity. In the past, parents and teachers colluded in taking joint responsibility towards children's behaviour, backing each other up. With schools now accusing parents of being the problem, kids intuitively know they can play parents and teachers off against one another. This is exacerbated by how educational fads also undermine parental authority. For example, when "lunchbox inspectors" send letters to parents advising them to feed their offspring "properly", schools explicitly diminish Mum and Dad's competence in front of the children.

Concern about classroom control can also distract teachers from focusing on the teaching of subjects, the one arena where discipline can be most legitimately instilled. What gives teachers the specific right to demand authority from a class of 30 pupils is their role in passing on subject expertise to novice learners. Yet, ironically, this intergenerational transmission of knowledge is one area where teachers seem most uncomfortable. Pedagogic literature now questions the model of "teacher knows best", promoting "democratising" teaching methods, demonising the all-knowing pedagogue as authoritarian. It is fashionable to write off traditional subject knowledge as hopelessly old-fashioned. This has the impact of undermining teachers' confidence in their own expertise. Self-doubting teachers reproach themselves for being out of date. Educators defensively question why they impart "the best that's known and thought" in the face of new generations of digital natives who (they imagine) can access new knowledge at the click of a mouse. Instead they adopt the role of mere facilitators, even co-learners, sidelined by Wikipedia, Google and the changing demands of the knowledge economy. Unfortunately, importing these relativistic values into classrooms inevitably fosters a climate where the authoritative status of teachers can be legitimately questioned by pupils. "Why should I shut up to listen to you, Sir, what do you know?"

Me, me, me culture

Things get worse when put into the context of education's embrace of therapeutic culture. Could schools be the source of the "me, me, me" culture much commented on post-riots? Martin Luther King famously described a riot as "the language of the unheard"; he obviously didn't anticipate the institutionalisation of the student voice movement. Indeed never has a generation been so heard, and it's a statutory obligation that schools listen. How can today's pupils be anything other than self-obsessed when student councils are invited to "interview" prospective members of staff, consulted on curriculum development and asked to discuss teachers' performance by Ofsted? Such fawning flattery of youth opinions undercuts teachers' authoritative role.

Historically, one important function of schooling is in teaching pupils the importance of personal responsibility, expressed in rules about punctuality, enforced homework deadlines, regular attendance and standards of behaviour. Yet today, pupils are well schooled in the myriad medical, psychological and social reasons that therapeutic educational theorists cite to explain disruptive behaviour or poor academic performance. Pupils ape their elders when they cry ADHD, social deprivation or parental neglect to demand dispensation for late coursework. We have taught the young a litany of excuses far beyond "the dog ate the homework". So we shouldn't be surprised when this immature excuse-making is parroted back to us as complaints that "it's not our fault". Listening to the many teenagers invited on to TV programmes to analyse the riots, it's clear that they are well trained in blaming others, depicting themselves and their looting peers as victims of evil adult policies, from cuts in youth facilities to lack of job prospects. Schools at least seem to have transmitted one thing to their pupils: the language of victimhood and complaint.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas and a panellist on BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze. She taught English in an FE college for 10 years.

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