God's unholy children

22nd December 2000 at 00:00
Damilola Taylor paid the ultimate price for living in a society where morality and responsibility have fallen out of fashion, writes Stuart Newton.

A LITTLE body is lying in a mortuary. A family is devastated. The many decent people in his community are shell-shocked. The terrible paraphernalia of death is set in motion and will last for weeks, probably well beyond Christmas and the New Year.

In the meantime, Damilola's family will exist, regretting the day they ever thought of coming to the UK. Reports suggest a small group of children were involved in the murder. Perhaps they did not mean to kill him. But they did.

Damilola's family will wrestle with their grief for the foreseeable future but life on the estate will soon get back to normal. The drug dealers will continue with their trade, just as they do in many other ghetto estates across the UK and the rest of the world.

The rest of us will liberally apply blame to parents, teachers, police, the media, politicians, religious leaders and social workers. When we have blamed everyone but ourselves, we will be ready to celebrate a festival to do with the birth of a baby in squalid circumstances and we shall forget the tragedy of a terrified little boy, dying alone in the equally squalid circumstances of a dark, damp, dirty stairwell while he was desperately trying to get back to his mother.

Damilola's death will have been in vain. As a society, we have collectively lost the plot. There is no point in wringing our hands about the death of this boy if we do not ask ourselves why it happened. There is no point in asking ourselves why it happened if we do not ask ourselves how things can be changed.

Damilola's murder was probably at the hands of someone not much older than him, youngsters who started life just like our own sons and daughters. Would our children have been any better if brought up in similar circumstances? The most honest answer is "perhaps". The fact that we do not experience such deprivation and squalor each day of our lives does not mean it does not exist. "Nothing to do with me, mate" is neither an honest nor an acceptable response to Damilola's death.

Let us stop blaming everyone else, and face some difficult facts. Our society no longer encourages people to take responsibility for their actions, or for each other. In recent years, we have gone overboard on human rights as the key to happiness. We now have a Human Rights Act. That would be fine if we had an equally strong sense of the importance of human responsibility, a concept which usually develops with maturity.

It is, however, entirely reasonable to expect adults to understand the link. We are, after all, supposed to have reached maturity by the time we have children. It is part of our duty as parents to teach young people the connection.

Is it surprising that young people do not get the message, when society at large has a blind spot about the importance of individual responsibility?

As long as we igore the idea of personal and collective responsibility for what goes on in society, we should not be surprised when things deteriorate. Adults were responsible for the young people who attacked Damilola. Adults are responsible today for the youngsters who will make similar attacks on vulnerable people tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. Those people are parents, teachers, church leaders, social workers and politicians. In other words, they are you and me.

So long as we regard human rights as sacred and human responsibilities as unimportant, we shall become a stampede of strangers.

We seem to have jettisoned much of our framework of moral values in order to accommodate an egalitarian concept of society. It is not clear to me what values we hold as important in Britain. If we allow people such as politicians to decide on such matters, then we have only ourselves to blame.

How do we expect our young people to learn any standards if we, as responsible adults, appear to have abandoned them? Young people will always rebel but at least, in a society with clear boundaries of acceptable behaviour, they used to know what they were rebelling against. Today, the boundaries of acceptable behaviour are planted so far away, and are so flimsy, that if young people do manage to find one, it is actually difficult for them to rebel against it.

It is a bit like driving through an unfamiliar town, where there seem to be few signposts. You drive with the mass of other vehicles, whose drivers all seem to know where they are going. You are desperately looking for non-existent signposts and have no idea where you are going. Too late, you see a sign which you need, but you are now in the wrong lane.

Our duty is to provide some signposts for young people. If we, as a society, are not prepared to do that, there will be plenty of others who will do so. These people may provide signposts that we disapprove of but then it will be too late because we will not have taken our chance. We also need some integrity and consistency. Schools provide children with codes of values, through lessons on religious belief and citizenship. Those values may be the ones which are, in theory, approved by society. But the messages provided in the classroom are often not reinforced in the real world outside.

The culture portrayed in films, by music, and on the streets may be very different. It is also likely to be presented in a far more glamorous and exciting way than is possible during lessons in religious education and citizenship. When there is a conflict of messages, the easiest and most powerfully-presented message is likely to be the one which prevails.

In Britain, we have a serious social problem, of which the death of Damilola is a symptom. We owe it to his memory to tackle some of the underlying problems which led to his death, through co-operation, communication, understanding and action.

Dr Stuart Newton is headteacher of Selsdon high school, Croydon

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