Neglect of 'bottom 30%' blamed for summer riots

2nd December 2011 at 00:00
'Inadequate education' has left them with no sense of purpose

The education system's "neglect" of the "bottom" third of pupils helped trigger this summer's riots, academics have claimed.

In a new book, in which they argue schools have been reduced to "exam factories", professors Frank Coffield and Bill Williamson say they were unsurprised by August's wave of violence and looting.

"The presence in inner-city housing estates of thousands upon thousands of young people who have no stake in this society, and who therefore have nothing to lose by engaging in serious criminal activity in order to acquire consumer goods, has been the repeated finding of social research," they write.

Those young people have been let down by the "continuing neglect of the bottom 30 per cent of the school population, generation after generation," argue the researchers, from London University's Institute of Education and Durham University, respectively.

Asked by TES whether this educational "neglect" had actually caused the riots, Professor Williamson said: "It is a big element in a complex equation. An inadequate education leaves people without a sense of purpose, without an ability to think long term, and doesn't allow them to deal with other influences and take sensible control of their lives. I wouldn't blame the schools system for creating the rampant consumerism that has driven this behaviour. But it has not done enough to neutralise it."

He stressed that the book was not a criticism of teachers, but of the schools system they worked in. It argues that a "galloping centralism" in education leaves educators feeling powerless and that they need to be given more freedom and influence.

More than half of those who appeared in court after the riots were aged 20 or younger. Government figures released in October showed they were much more likely than the average to have failed exams, been excluded from school, truanted and to have special educational needs (see box, right).

The academics are not the first to suggest that schools either helped cause the riots or might prevent their repetition.

In August, the Archbishop of Canterbury told Parliament that the disorder should lead people to look again at education that had become "less and less concerned with a building of virtue, character and citizenship". And prime minister David Cameron said the riots meant the country needed to confront a "slow-motion moral collapse" that included "schools without discipline".

Education secretary Michael Gove, like professors Coffield and Williamson, linked the riots with the school system's failure to provide for those at the bottom, saying: "We still, every year, allow thousands more children to join an educational underclass."

But the academics claim that Mr Gove is exacerbating this problem by ensuring that "power is being centralised at the highest possible level", rather than being devolved to schools.

The DfE said schools are "queuing around the block" to become academies to gain "real power and freedom". But the academics argue that teachers should reclaim their freedom over teaching methods and demand equal partnership with Government in the development of new policies and qualifications. Their book claims that the third of pupils who consistently fail to achieve the GCSE benchmark "are very unlikely ever to get them" because the exams "are seriously inappropriate" for them.

"We could liberate schools to work with employers and community and youth groups to leave behind the constraints of the national curriculum and GCSEs," Professor Williamson said. "You cannot separate this ridiculously counter-productive behaviour (rioting) from generational failures to engage young people in learning as effectively as we could do."

And he is sceptical about the Government's latest attempt to enrich pupils' cultural education. "It is about equipping them with the skills to manage complex lives," he said. "It is not a case of shoving the King James Bible under their noses."

"From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery" is published by Institute of Education Publications

LOSING HOPE

Government figures on the 10 to 17-year-olds who appeared in court by the end of September in connection with the riots

66% had some form of special educational need, compared with 21 per cent of all state secondary pupils

36% had been temporarily excluded from school at least once during 200910, compared with 6 per cent of all Year 11 pupils

11% achieved five or more A*-Cs at GCSE including English and maths in 200910, compared with 53 per cent of all pupils.

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