So what's to be done?

John Freeman
Monday, August 15, 2011

Head above the parapet time ...

There are many causes of the recent riots - so no one single remedy will put them right. But to talk of a 'broken society' or a 'moral collapse' is just over-blown. Even in the areas affected, only a very few people took part, and many of those were opportunistic and caught up in the hysteria, and won't do it again. No-one has made themselves rich through looting - and the risks or being caught later if not at the time are becoming clearer.

It seems to me that there are two underlying causes; entrenched poverty and the accompanying high unemployment and low expectations; and increasing social inequity, with increased visibility of some of the richest people and their over-blown lifestyles.

So ... we need to do something about social equity, to reduce the huge gap between the richest and the poorest. That is responsibility of government (through fiscal and statutory measures) and social institutions, through community engagement. I include employers in the list of social institutions; they provide local employment. We need to measure the social good of employers as well as their bottom-line profit-or-loss accounts, and the government should do this through the tax regime. It is pointless to hope that employers, the stock market, hedge funds and bankers will do this spontaneously; the government needs to put in place incentives, checks and balances so that the money markets act to the common good. So, for example, the tax paid by a company should reflect the added-value it provides to society. And companies that avoid tax through off-shore operations should be incentivised to come back on-shore.

But this is all long term and will take years to impact. How long will it take for employers to come back to some of our most disadvantaged communities even when there are incentives in place? Read 'Ruined City' by Nevil Shute for a taste of how it worked during the 1930s.

In the shorter term, the previous government had a number of policies in place that were making a real difference. Sure Start is the obvious example, but there needed to be an even clearer focus on serving the most deprived communities, rather than attempting to provide a universal service. The other example is Teaching Assistants. Typically, a school now has as many, if not more, Teaching Assistants as it does teachers. There are three positive effects here for our most deprived communities. First, the Teaching Assistants tend to be local; living in the communities they serve (while teachers tend to live elsewhere and drive in). This has the effect of bringing work back to an area where they may be whole families who have never experienced work. Second, the money the Teaching Assistants earn is spent locally, providing a real boost to the local community economy. Thirdly, Teaching Assistants typically undergo learning and personal development, and raise local expectations and aspirations. I can well recall the excitement in Dudley when the first initially-unqualified teaching assistant graduated as a teacher. So, beyond the work they do with children, there are real and tangible benefits from the introduction of Teaching Assistants. (And yes, I know that one of the rioters who pleaded guilty was ... a Teaching Assistant' - and another was involved in the 7/7 atrocities - but these are exceptions, in the same way as some middle class young people were involved in the riots.)

Back in the day, by which I mean 1973, the school at which I started teaching was a Social Priority School, which meant that teachers were paid (a little) extra. We need to incentives through school and social funding, and otherwise, the development of the best schools and children's services in the most deprived areas. Service funding and the Pupil Premium need to reflect need. (And schools that serve these areas should not be lambasted for poor results - they have a more difficult job to do - which is not the same as saying that these areas deserve poor schools, or that there should be low expectations.)

And finally, the government needs to consider what can be done to incentivise employers to set up businesses that employ people from deprived communities.

 What must we not do? Notwithstanding the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, we must not emphasise punishment over rehabilitation. After a year or so, most of those now being jailed will be back in their communities, often with a criminal record for the first time, and increased difficulty in getting a job. And those evicted from their homes will have nowhere to go. That. surely, is a means of embedding hostility, disadvantage, and social unrest. Now that rioters have discovered that they can go a few miles and trash some-one else's community, rather than their own, the danger is that they will do just that.  Finally, what we must not do is directly fund people in poverty without some commitment - we must incentivises positive engagement. So we have to give people a stake in engaging with their communities; that's a social compact that will make a long-term difference..