Sunday, September 02, 2007

All our sons deserve better

There are certain incidents or events that sicken you to the pit of your stomach; they defy rational explanation, acts of insanity or mindless barbarism. How can anyone comprehend Rhys Jones’ father’s situation as he sat in his son’s Everton bedroom looking at his schoolbooks, uniform and pencil case all laid out ready for him to start secondary school?

Rhys’ death gave the papers the perfect excuse to go into overdrive and write total garbage. One of them super-imposed his head in front of the council estate a mile away from Croxteth Park and carried the headline, “Brooding menace on the bleak streets Rhys called home.” Make it short, make it snappy and make it up.

According to some of the press we’re all going to hell in a handcart, every working-class estate is some kind of dystopian ghetto with feral children produced by single parents and hooded gangs controlling the streets. In fact violent crime is at its lowest for 25 years and the murder rate is five times less than New York. No consolation though if your 11 year old son has been shot through the back of the head with a gun.

So is it at all down to the ‘erosion of social values? Single parents, lack of school discipline? In the 1950s single parents were ‘persuaded’ by charities to give their children up for adoption and thousands were shipped out to Australia to be abused by paedophile priests. Discipline in some schools was enforced by beating young children to a pulp. Ah yes, the ‘good old days’.

So what happened to ‘stable working-class communities’? Interesting that the press don’t mention the 1980s decade of ‘Greed is Good’, where the numbers of millionaires doubled and child poverty tripled. Industries were decimated in that Thatcherite blitzkrieg; mining communities were destroyed and as jobs left, heroin moved in.

A few months ago the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported on poverty and wealth in Britain. They identified three groups in society, the breadline poor - 27%; the non-poor, non-wealthy - 50% and the asset wealthy - 23% The key findings were-· The breadline poor (those excluded from participating in the norms of society) had risen from 17% in 1980, to 22% in 1990 and 27% in 2000.· The personal wealth of the richest 1% of the population grew as a proportion of the national share from 17% in 1991 to 24% in 2002.One of the authors of the report Professor Danny Dorling noted that there was a ‘rise in the geographical separation of the poor from the rich – where the two groups live physically apart.’ The people in the most segregated social group were those wealthy people who could exclude themselves from schools, hospitals and recreation facilities. This was accentuated in some affluent areas like Mole Valley in Surrey and Chesham and Amershan in Buckinghamshire where in 1980 67% were neither rich nor poor, twenty years later only a quarter were in that category. A quarter were rich in 1980 but this had soared to 61% in 2000.

During the 1990s large parts of cities had over half the population living in poverty. As Dorling concluded, ‘In these places, it is, in effect, now normal to be poor.’

A divided society? Nothing exemplified that better than the school that teamed up with a local call centre to teach an NVQ in ‘communication skills’. Can you imagine the outcry if a public or grammar school did this? Nothing like lowering expectations at an early stage. They aren’t alone, some of Labour’s new fangled academies have pupils majoring in hairdressing and woodwork. Yes, decades after most secondary moderns were abolished they’re being re-invented as ‘vocational schools’.

Another feature of the 1980s was the way that social mobility declined, in many estates the idea that you would ‘do better’ than your parents was no longer the case. If all that’s on offer today are McJobs on £5 an hour then being a part of a drug gang can appear to be a glamorous alternative. Like America we’ve become a nation rigidly divided into the have everything’s, the comfortably off and the have nothings – factor in the drugs and it’s a perfect environment for ‘gang culture’.

The last census in 2001 for Norris Green showed the following-

· 28% had a limiting long term illness
· 20% had never worked or were long term unemployed
· 55% of households didn’t have a car
· 51% didn’t have any qualifications

Norris Green isn’t unique; the same conditions are there in Liverpool’s other ‘forgotten estates’ – Netherley, Dovecot, Fazakerley, Speke. As far as the City Council are concerned they might as well be invisible (there was the cock-up with the Boot Estate in Norris Green - residents left for months in temporary accommodation) so focused are they on tarting up the city centre. The City of Culture is fine (although they’ve even managed to mess that up as well) – trendy wine bars, cafes serving latte coffee, bring it on. But if you don’t raise all the boats you are left with an enclave in the centre for luvvies and culture vultures while the estates on the periphery are sinking into despair.

Let’s have more police on the streets, install thousands of CCTV cameras but at the same time why not provide decent sporting and youth facilities in Norris Green? Youth work is always the first service to get cut. The Norris Green estate stands as a grisly memorial to decades of ‘there is no such thing as society’ Conservative rule and ten years of New Labour Thatcher-lite policies. 1.2 million of 16-24 year olds are now classed as ‘NEETS’ – not in employment, education or training. They are the lost generation who are the foot soldiers in the drug wars.

I’m not totally absolving parents from blame, but I teach in a school in one of the most ‘disadvantaged’ parts of the country. In my experience the vast majority of parents do a great job under difficult conditions, a minority have problems usually because they are addicted to drink or drugs. Some of them have had a tough time as children themselves and don’t have the resources or experience to cope. So do we absolve ourselves, or in a civilised society do we look to the state to at least help the children? Of course sometimes you need to use the stick, but if there’s no carrot, as any teacher will tell you – you will fail. See the New Labour crime policy – Asbos, thousands more offences created and record numbers in prison.

Every other Everton game there is a minutes silences or applause for someone killed on a foreign battlefield, the other week it was for an 11 year old child slaughtered by a drug gang. All our sons (and daughters) deserve better.


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