Why must we always gun for teachers?

31st August 2007 at 01:00
Peter Wilby is a former editor of the New Statesman

When teachers in inner-city schools read about the growing use of guns in teenage gang wars and particularly about last week's fatal shooting of 11 year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool I suspect many will feel, albeit guiltily, a sense of vindication. At last, they may think, the public, media and politicians will understand what we have to cope with. Alas, the habit of scapegoating teachers doesn't die so easily.

Writing about Rhys Jones's death in the Daily Mail, Philip Norman complained that "most schools now disclaim all responsibility for their pupils off the premises". Minette Marrin in The Sunday Times demanded "a passionate backlash against irresponsibility and irresponsible, misguided waste and the terrible state sector mentality that... has produced teachers who can't or won't teach...". (No, that won't make more sense if you read it again and, yes, this same columnist frequently grumbles about school-leavers who can't express themselves properly.) Such attitudes aren't confined to the right-wing papers. The Guardian's Madeleine Bunting, calling for empathy with Rhys Jones's killers, lamented that their local schools offered "nothing but boredom and failure".

Ms Bunting wrote a thoughtful and illuminating piece about the causes of social breakdown in poor urban areas. Yet even she couldn't resist a sideswipe at teachers. To be fair, neither she nor the other writers gave schools a central role in their analyses. But it is taken for granted that, for any social problem involving people under the age of 40 violence, sexual promiscuity, drug-taking, alcoholism, gambling, obesity, swearing teachers must be at least partly to blame. Exactly what they have omitted to do is only vaguely specified. Presumably, in the case of Rhys Jones's killers, somebody failed to explain that it is wrong to fire guns at people.

I can give you a long list of possible reasons for the growth of gang warfare in the inner cities. Think of films and video games that glorify violence; of advertising that insists "respect" is derived from possession of branded goods; of newspapers that legitimise teenage gangs by printing their names and the names of the territories they "rule"; of the decline of manufacturing industries that once provided steady employment for young men; of policing practices, borrowed from 1970s America, that add to the sense of danger on the streets; of social and economic pressures that have created an epidemic of family breakdown; of years of racial prejudice and discrimination that have alienated so many among the ethnic minorities; of the preposterous "war on drugs", which has stimulated the growth of a major industry outside the law. While we may disagree about which of these are most important, schools are nowhere on the list.

Against these and other forces, urban schools are powerless, struggling to maintain an oasis of calm amid the mayhem. If pupils and their parents often reject what schools offer, is that really so surprising? After all, they're always being told that schools are rubbish.

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