Violence set to carry on

22nd December 1995 at 00:00
Mike Kivi reflects on inner city problems following the killing of a headteacher. A fortnight ago I showed my English class of 14 year olds the film of Willy Russell's heart-rendingly funny play Our Day Out. We had read it together, discussed the reasons for the liberal use of "bad" language and dwelt for some time on the apparent cruelty of some young people to each other.

For me Our Day Out is especially poignant, having taught for four years in a Toxteth school identical to the one depicted in the film's opening sequence. It is a tale of deprivation, inequality and racism acted out by children from broken homes - the product of poor housing, unemployment, drug abuse and, of course, violence. Willy Russell's film is even more relevant because it uses real children as "the kids".

I have never watched this play on stage or the film without a lump in my throat. Nor have I been able to avoid the involuntary gasp of laughter at the brutal humour. "But it is so true", colleagues would say in the eighties.

To hear the evening news later that day of the tragedy which took place outside St George's School in Maida Vale brought back a flood of memories and mixed emotions - anger at the waste, despair and seeming endlessness of inner city rage. Instant analysis and political resolutions were being broadcast but for those involved the agony was only just beginning.

My own experience is littered with the memory of incidents which are only too familiar today and as far as ever from resolution. There was the boy who chased his lifelong enemy along the main street of Toxteth at lunch time with a butcher's knife belonging to his father. He was persuaded to give up his weapon by a teacher who had just returned to school after a long period of "nervous" illness.

There was the father who waited outside the school for a member of staff with a heavy stick. I lost a front tooth myself by a "careless elbow" on the stairway at break and will never forget the brick concealed in a snowball which hit me in the back at the bus stop.

But most of all there was the blind courage and humour of all those young people who knew but never admitted that there was little future for them.

Fifteen years later, it is sad to reflect on the number of former pupils who have committed crimes of violence and robbery. There are two cases of suicide that I know of and one boy who was murdered - shot - shortly after becoming a national champion in karate. There are girls who married, divorced and struggled alone with children. And those who never married and are single parents in grim circumstances.

The death of a head teacher in such violent circumstances shocks and reminds us all that time does not alleviate the devastating impact of poverty, unemployment and prejudice in inner cities. Fifteen years of educational reform does not seem to have touched the heart of society's ills.

In the light of recent experience, it must be time to question the relevance of political debate about parental choice, vouchers, tests, league tables and the funding of technology - surely the spotlight must now focus on the long neglected areas of social education and personal development.

It is fruitless for politicians and ordinary people to talk about the need for greater emphasis on community values if the national curriculum offers little in the way of opportunity for the development of the individual, within its still burgeoning, over-prescriptive structure.

As I watched the final credits running at the end of Our Day Out I was shocked to be reminded that one of the teenage boys in the film had recently appeared on national television in a different role. He is accused, with his brother, of a shooting in a recent "gangland" fight in Liverpool .

It would be neat to say that we have come full circle, but we have not. The violence and hysteria persists, and schools need more than hypocritical promises to work on the problem. To regard education simply as a tool for restructuring a failing economy is not good enough.

Mike Kivi is a freelance writer and media studies teacher at Helsby High School, Cheshire.

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