Most teachers saw the riots coming

2nd September 2011 at 01:00

"Here is the News At Ten. This evening there was rioting and looting in Tottenham. The police dealt with the disturbances quickly and forcefully and there has been no trouble elsewhere. However, because so many young people were involved, the Government is reviewing opportunities for young people across inner cities and there will be immediate and substantial cash injections for youth projects."

Well, we can dream, can't we? What a dreadful, depressing and frightening summer. The worst urban riots in living memory, homes and livelihoods destroyed, youths as young as 11 plundering shops - and the police caught off guard, initially forced to watch the rioters torch cars and smash shop windows. The thin veneer of society seemed broken, the hooded thieves claiming they were untouchable and owned the streets. For a few terrifying nights, they did. Modern electronic devices - the things we are continually confiscating in school - enabled the troublemakers to keep constantly in touch and to stay one step ahead of the law.

Then, shocked and dazed, we witnessed the aftermath. The deeply affecting funeral of the young men mowed down by a speeding car. The agony of the family whose century-old business was razed to the ground. The hundreds who turned out with brooms to clear their neighbourhood streets, giving us a little hope to counteract some of the despair. The media debating the reasons behind what had happened and what we should do now, inevitably leading to political point-scoring.

There were farcical elements, too. A young reporter asking a householder how she felt now that her house had been burnt down. The father of one violent looter saying he couldn't watch his son 247, could he, as he'd still go out at two o'clock in the morning, wouldn't he? The 14-year-old looter who said he took a plasma TV to get back what the Government had taken from him in taxes, "innit". A newscaster saying at the end of the evening news, "And now, just before the weather, here are the highlights of the riots", as if they were a form of entertainment. And, to cap it all, Prince Charles, beautifully dressed in a lightweight grey suit, asking a black man in Tottenham if he was a rapper. "Actually," the man replied, "I'm a youth worker."

Teachers must have been particularly appalled and upset by these events. Second to parents, they are responsible for instilling values, responsibility, sensitivity and self-discipline into young people. But I suspect that every inner-city teacher saw the warning signs of what might happen, although not to the shocking extent it did. It was put succinctly by an elderly Jamaican grandmother, who poured scorn on how we have allowed our youth to become self-centred, materialistic and arrogant. "Just look at the state we're in," she said. "Discipline your children and you get social services banging on your door."

There is plenty of evidence to support her view. In a poll, more than 90 per cent of teachers said they had been subjected to rudeness, abuse or physical violence from children and that there is precious little they can do about it, because the support they will receive if they clamp down hard is often non-existent. And parents, they will say, are more likely to accept the child's version of events than theirs.

As we return to school, I suspect there won't be endless discussion of what went wrong because it's all too obvious. Frankly, schools often seem the last bastions of security, honesty and integrity. I just hope that now there will be more grip on reality and support for the problems teachers face.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email:

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