Why Kelly's posse will get no respect

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Watching a group of youngsters use a train carriage as a playground, it is hard not to have some sympathy for Ruth Kelly. If you received orders to create a culture of respect in schools, what would you do? However, her appointment of a "task force" called the "leadership group on behaviour and discipline" left me not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

"Teaching" respect is not a new problem. I can still hear the raised voice of a headteacher 30 years ago in a London primary school bellowing "You will show respect to others in my school!" I was a "special reading teacher" working among the coats in the stairwell cloakroom above his office when a child and I were galvanised into silence. Someone was getting a thorough shaking.

An even earlier memory comes from the first day of my first job at a London secondary school. The deputy head enquired whether I could read the invisible sign above the door to my classroom. When I looked blank, he informed me that it read "I am the boss!" Never forget it, he added.

I had been assigned to teach a "remedial" class' of 13-year-olds in an otherwise mixed-ability comprehensive. My children were mainly boys and black. A central part of my strategy for engaging them was to end every day by reading a story or novel that would rivet them. Sometimes we talked about the story, sometimes we didn't. Some ideas found their way into later drama sessions.

Two rules were absolute: first, this was a test-free zone - questions arose freely and were open-ended; second, whatever power struggles we might have engaged in earlier, this creative time was sacrosanct. In submitting to the power of the story, we shed our roles and, for half an hour, became our true selves on whatever emotional journeys the writer invited us. I am convinced that this daily half-hour kept us sane.

Perhaps most important of all, as the year drew on, the stories we held in common grew. Occasionally, one of us would see a sudden connection during a lesson with a fictional character or incident. "Oh, that's like so-and-so whenI!"

When Jan Berry, chairwoman of the Police Federation, recently said on Channel 4 that "There are some kids who feel totally alienated", she could just as well have been describing this, my first, class of teenagers. They felt completely marginalised within school and society, and many of my battles with them were about self-belief. They had been put in a remedial class and believed they were not expected to learn.

I refused to accept such negativity and constantly challenged them with evidence of their own progress.

When I refused to go to prize day because none of my pupils' achievements had been acknowledged, I was hauled over the coals by my superiors. Those young people are now parents and I have often wondered about what expectations they might have for their own teenagers.

Relationships between generations as well as peers versus parents were among the themes that I researched for my recent novel Web of Lies. If there was still any mystique in Britain about adults and adulthood 35 years ago, that has certainly gone. With or without reality TV, most young people today have no illusions.

They are especially quick to cite adult double-speak and hypocrisy. When Blair claims moral reasons for joining Bush's war in Iraq, they laugh. It was for oil, man! Money matters and might is right. "Bling" and bombs get you what you want. Is it so surprising that many young people strive for respect within gangs - where it is defined by hierarchies of power and frequently violence?

Web of Lies is set in similar London streets to those where Damilola Taylor was killed, not far from where Stephen Lawrence was murdered. Here, as elsewhere, developing self-respect and empathy for others is an exercise of imagination and the young people who manage it fill me with admiration.

Ruth Kelly and her people would do well to listen to their stories.

Disrespect runs deep within our social fabric. Schools, even with the help of parents, cannot be expected to cure it with three or four behaviour programmes.

Beverley Naidoo won the Carnegie Medal with The Other Side of Truth. Web of Lies is its sequel. Both are published by Puffin

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