There's not much wrong with our moral compass

26th August 2011 at 01:00

In an attempt to fend off my characteristic start-of-term grumpiness, my wife once offered to make me a badge that said: "If you don't ask me how my holiday was, I won't ask about yours." She thought it would stop me pretending to look interested during conversations I didn't want to have.

The start of term is always a jolt to the system, and even those of us who are seasoned veterans spend the last days of the holidays feeling fluttery nerves and occasional bursts of panic. For me, 26 years since my first day as a fledgling English teacher, those early signs are building once again, palpably and inescapably.

This year, I suspect, the conversations are going to be different.For a start those annual shrieks about falling A-level standards were mostly smothered by students' clamour for university places ahead of hiked tuition fees.

And then there were the riots.

I've tried to avoid knee-jerk reactions to politicians' knee-jerk reactions, but I'm unconvinced by the prevailing diagnosis of "complete moral collapse" to explain events that have generated such revulsion, shame and disbelief.

The narrative of an apparent slump into moral chaos got me reminiscing. I was brought up in the 1970s and my dad would sometimes take me to watch Wolverhampton Wanderers. My salient memory is the way those Saturday visits were curtailed or stopped because of crowd violence. It was nothing compared to what you saw in other places. We forget that city centres across the UK were routinely trashed and the police attacked.

I also remember how the mainstream TV shows of the day - from the deliberately provocative Alf Garnett to the superficially banal and yet equally offensive It Ain't Half Hot Mum - were casually vindictive in their warped stereotyping of people whose race or gender or sexuality didn't "fit".

It was an age before those much-lampooned notions of political correctness and community cohesion, and to my mind, if the 1970s weren't quite like WH Auden's characterisation of the 1930s as a "low dishonest decade", they also weren't an age whose moral values you would want to aspire to.

Which is one of the reasons I don't accept the analysis that the rioting by perhaps 2,000 Londoners in a city of eight million conclusively demonstrates the insidious onset of moral decay. After all, look at how the country has responded: full of fury, revulsion, a desire to help tidy up and an overwhelming sense of the wrongness of what took place. If anything, it's shown that our collective moral compass doesn't need too much realignment.

Nor do I recognise the soundbites about single-parent families, used shamefully by some as a shorthand for troubled or broken. Nor do I accept the complaint that somehow the riots have direct links with behaviour in schools. There won't be any schools that don't constantly reinforce a sense of right and wrong through their behaviour codes, their systems, their values and ethos. None of which is to say that something isn't deeply wrong in parts of our communities, but to unleash something akin to a National Strategy for Moral Reconstruction isn't what we need and isn't going to work.

I can see why some politicians - stung by criticism that as London burned they sipped distant cocktails - want to be seen to respond with gravitas and urgency. But the big risk is that we end up demonising young people. Personally, I've never felt more optimistic about a younger generation who are hungry to improve the world, to participate and to engage with political issues. Labelling them "feral rats" is foolish.

We particularly need to heed the warnings of Maggie Atkinson, children's commissioner for England, who said last week: "Sadly, some have gained the impression that most of the rioters were children but the reality is that, reportedly at least, 75 per cent of those being charged are over 18. We must take care not to write off a whole generation of young people. We would never claim, because a minority of adults rioted, that most adults in England are criminals."

Similarly, as any decent teacher knows, if you give all the attention to the miscreants in a class, you generate the very kudos they crave. We need to be very careful amid all this talk of gangs that we aren't feeding the sense of swaggering self-importance and glamour they seek.

There's no doubt that schools will have an important role in helping to rebuild fragile communities. But those people rioting in streets across English cities weren't doing so because of a lack of discipline in school. And if education teaches us anything, it's that quick fixes rarely work.

As Einstein put it: "Everything should be made as simple as possible - but not simpler."

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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