Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Thursday 11 August 2011

A sense of entitlement

You've got to feel sorry for Michael Gove; there he is trying to sort out a mess that makes cleaning the Augean stables look like a bit of light hoovering while being systematically undermined by the left-leaning (un)civil servants of the Department for Education or whatever it calls itself these days.

What everyone wants to know is why our young people are emerging from schools with fewer certificates than the Tavern dog and what can be done about it. The rioters interviewed complaining they had no jobs may well be right, but I wonder what skills or qualifications they had to offer a potential employer.

The deplorable level of academic achievement in this country has been blamed on a number of things, among them the lack of role models, celebrity culture and that old chestnut deprivation - though Britain has plenty of examples of academic success from backgrounds of real poverty before the welfare state was born.

However, the behaviour of the rioters and looters in recent days is, I would argue, the result of one of the most significant causes of academic failure - a lack of accountability. These children are completely indifferent to rules or exhortations to behave well becauser they believe they can do exactly as they like.

Pupils in many schools see their teachers powerless in the face of disruption - lacking even the most basic sanctions of detention or extra work as punishment for bad behaviour - and are tempted to exploit the situation. A handful of determinedly disruptive pupils can effectively prevent any learning taking place in the classroom, however well-informed, entertaining or interesting the teacher may be.

The consquences of misbehaving or failing to complete work are so trivial that the benefits of messing around in lessons and amusing their peers far outweigh them. Much of the blame for this must lie with Head teachers like the one who, in a school where I worked, gave an official warning to a female teacher who had momentarily caught the back of a boy's blazer to stop him punching another boy in the head.

What she should have done, he explained later to the assembled staff, was to allow the blow to land, then, ignoring the attacker, escort his victim to the office for medical attention and then report the incident to the Head - who would follow his usual procedure of inviting the perpetrator to sit down and talk about why he felt the need to punch someone. (It's a fair bet that this character, for example, has a few of these interviews in his past.)

Intervening to prevent harm meant that, while the teacher was still occupied with the victim, the aggressor, accompanied by several friends, was able to visit the Head with a pre-emptive allegation of assault against the teacher*. Standard practice in this situation is suspension pending an enquiry, giving the accuser and his allies a gratifying sense of power - and, of course, leading to his own act of violence being conveniently forgotten in the process.

Small wonder then that false accusations abound - and are usually levelled against those members of staff most likely to enforce what discipline they are allowed to. These potentially career-wrecking allegations are removing effective and experienced teachers from the profession every year; beyond the classroom a similar phenomenon inhibits any adult trying to prevent young people doing something illegal or antisocial - it's not surprising that they seem to think looting or rioting will be consequence-free.

And small wonder that childen, having refused to take advantage of the education on offer in our schools through a lack of respect for their teachers and fellow-pupils, leave school with rudimentary qualifications and an overwhelming sense of their own importance, invulnerability and entitlement.

Update - someone else is thinking along similar lines this week; Patently Rubbish suggests some decisive steps to re-assert the rule of law, including this one:
Pass a law establishing that teachers are indeed in loco parentis and that a punishment inflicted by a teacher is acceptable regardless of the opinion of the parent or guardian, provided that it is not grossly disproportionate. 

* The boy made a total of four visits to the Head, during which his story escalated to claiming that the teacher (a head shorter than him and considerably lighter) had grabbed him by his shirt collar and thrown him against the opposite wall of the corridor. 
Even after the school secretary reported overhearing him, while he was waiting outside, speculating with his friends about how much compensation he would get, the Head continued to insist that the allegations had to be taken seriously - the repeated visits, he said, were simply 'an indication of how traumatised the child had been by the incident'.


  1. Melanie Phillips gets people's gander but much of what she said about education and the like was right. The presence of middle-class rioters supports the idea that the education system and lack of values is the root cause.

  2. Unfortunately Phillips' book* - seems to have entrenched many in their failing ideology despite the clear evidence of the system's shortcomings.

    Thus teachers are odrdered to mark in green pen - less 'confrontational' than red - and to correct a maximum of three spellings in any piece of work 'to avoid damaging the pupil's self-esteem'.

    *'All Must Have Prizes', for anyone who hasn't read it: an indictment of the progressive education system.

  3. Thanks for the link!

    Like you, I don't see the root cause of the riots being anything recent or sudden. A large number of people were perfectly willing to ignore the rule of law and do what suited them without any regard for their fellow man. That doesn't happen overnight. It takes a long time.


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