Why must we always gun for teachers?

14th September 2007 at 01:00
When teachers in inner-city schools read about the growing use of guns, many might feel a sense of vindication. At last, the public, media and politicians will know what we have to cope with. Alas, the scapegoating of teachers doesn't die so easily.

Writing about Rhys Jones's death in the Daily Mail, Philip Norman complained "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". Such attitudes aren't confined to 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". She too 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 40, 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 work 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 racial prejudice that has alienated many among the ethnic minorities; of the preposterous "war on drugs" that 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. If pupils and their parents often reject what schools offer, is that so surprising? After all, they're always being told that schools are rubbish.

Peter Wilby

is a former editor of the New Statesman

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