Tuesday, 10 November 2009

In praise of the 'violence prevention industry’

I just want to stand up and acknowledge, thank and salute every single dedicated and hard-working person in what I like to refer to as ‘the violence prevention industry’ – that is the holistic bunch comprising 3rd sector (community groups and charities), public sector, private sector, parents, peers and citizens.  See below (excuse my lame graphics, and ignore the headings in the picture: I want to thank ~everyone~):

Why thank them? Because I’ve never seen anyone else thank them - and believe it or not they are making a big difference, so they shouldn’t forget to feel proud from time to time.

Riding home on my bike dodging nutters in white vans (and even bigger nutters on other bikes...), it occurred to me that a strange thing has been happening inside my head (no, not the voices). The more time I spend examining and trying to understand horrific violence, the better I feel! And the reason is this – by going to various meetings and conferences, by reading threads and articles, by talking to people in the industry, it has slowly dawned on me how massive the prevention industry really is, and how amazing and selflessly dedicated so many of the people inside it really are.

Ordinary folk who could easily earn more money elsewhere, giving up days and nights and very often putting themselves in danger (including heroes like Simon: http://www.thisislocallondon.co.uk/news/4717105.WALTHAMSTOW__Youth_worker_stabbed_while_protecting_teens_from_gang/ ), in a thankless industry where negligent media vultures sit on their arses waiting for someone to drop the ball so they can be crucified in public.

I can only begin to imagine what the violence levels might be if none of these people were working to reduce them.  The country is suspended in an intricate yin vs. yang equilibrium and these people are the positive half!  So for what it’s worth, I salute you people in the industry, even though I’m a nobody!

But what about all the failures??
‘Now hold on’ I hear you cry. What about the idiots who let baby P die, what about the cretins who failed probation duties on kids who went on to kill?

Well I’ve got a thought for you: how would YOU fancy their job mmm?  Do you know exactly what happened and how the failure came about? Are you quite sure you’d have done it better in their boots? Do you know how many lives those same idiots have saved? I saw a nice quote on facebook the other day, some character said “never judge a man until you have walked one mile in his moccasins” or something like that.

The thankless agony of prevention
I’ve spent 10 years in an industry where a large part of any company is a bunch of folks whose job it is to prevent IT systems ‘going bang’. When IT systems go bang in the city, someone - who was using the system at the time it went bang - loses money or loses the opportunity to make some (same difference).

When prevention systems go bang in the safeguarding industry, a child can die.

And trust me, those city IT systems go bang a lot, despite the 'best efforts' of the folks paid £50-200K to keep the things running. I have studied so many incident post-mortems I have lost count. I ran a team of people whose job it was to stop the systems from going bang.  And still the blasted things went bang and boy did it wind me up.
But once I sorted out most of the straightforward reasons for repeat incidents, I noticed that the worst incidents were the ones where, as I used to say, ‘all the planets lined up’. It was seldom just one thing, it was typically 2 or three at the same time, and very hard to predict... and crucially the worst incidents normally featured one of the staff doing something with the best of intentions in the heat of the moment, that actually made it worse. Well-intentioned but human staff, a bit short on training here, a bit short on sleep there, a bit short on motivation here.  Often it was a genuinely new situation where people had to think on their feet - and got it wrong that time.

OK but you have got a point – there are always some bad eggs in the basket.  There are the wisecracks who don't follow the paper procedure because they 'know it all'.  There are those who are plain lazy, those who are so unscrupulous that as long as they don't get the sack they genuinely seem not to care what horrors they cause or fail to prevent.  I have no time or respect for them, but I have even less respect for their managers who earn more than them and allow the rot to spread and stay, unless it's the manager's manager making life impossible.  And so on.

But should the occasional bad egg and the occasional inadvertent failure mean the ENTIRE INDUSTRY is condemned in the press and over a pint and at the dinner parties?  No I don't think so.

Take social workers - try to imagine how utterly depressing it must be to work in an industry in the 21st century that has to perform ‘triage’ on small children – knowingly allowing certain children to come to some harm in order to save scarce resource for the children who are in credible, provable, mortal danger (read point 3.11 on p32 of this report to see what I’m talking about: http://publications.everychildmatters.gov.uk/eOrderingDownload/HC-330.pdf). Think Kate Bekinsale outside the hospital with a pen, in “Pearl Harbour”. It’s not fun, playing God.

And try to imagine how difficult it must be to recruit staff into the industry when hardly anyone bothers to thank you but the rest queue up to throw rotten vegetables. How do you motivate the staff when the best they can hope for is a pat on the back from their line manager - and even then only if the manager is smart enough to realise that if he doesn’t praise them no-one else will. If you think about it, the agony of prevention is totally obvious: YOU CAN’T COUNT HOW MANY TIMES SOMETHING BAD DOES NOT HAPPEN.  Also, typically only one person gets blamed for a failure but small armies queue up to take credit for a success.

I laugh till I wee, at the thought of the press headlines we'll never see (ooo that rhymes!):

- "Boy in care since age 3 gets 5 GCSEs at grade A-C"
- "Poor performing local authority has 50% fewer safeguarding cockups than last year"
- "Girl who was beaten every week is taken into a foster family"

But this is all fantastic news.  Apparently it's a free market economy and the press only print bad news because we buy it.  But where is the good news newspaper that we can defect to?  exactly.  Anyway I'll back off the press for now, I'll maul them properly another time.

I'll stop now but will post another blog on 'prevention' soon that I hope to deliver as a talk one day.  It draws parallels with the IT incident prevention industry and explores the incendiary notion of an 'acceptable' level of violence...

So getting back to the point, I raise my cup of tea, in thanks and admiration, to all the soldiers on the front line of violence prevention: thank you one and all (but shame fall hard on the bad eggs - it's time to change your tune before karma catches up with you).

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Failure is only the opposite of success (and thoughts on neglect)

I would like to present a "reverse" technique for trying to understand what causes (youth) violence and how best to prevent it.

This technique is derived from one of my most cherished beliefs: that we are all (BAME and WAME…) born as 'evil' as eachother, but some of us are lucky enough to be taught (actively and passively) to overcome our 'evil' tendencies, and are lucky enough to exist in a sufficiently privileged situation where we never feel our only option is to use ‘evil’ strategies to secure our personal safety or income.

I figured that if we could describe what positive things create a physical/emotional/incentive framework that basically eliminates the natural tendency towards youth violence, we could try describing the causes of youth violence as being the opposite or absence of those positive things. We could then view the spread of state and charity organisations as simply attempting to provide the missing services to children who don't get them at home! I should even be able to map these items to state and 3rd sector services (and even find some that are missing from state services).

As part of this analysis I thought it would be interesting to ask myself why I personally did NOT engage in any serious violence as a child or teenager. During this meditation, I jotted down bullet points of what a 'good carer' provides for their children (this is probably a compliment to my parents by I’d never admit it…).

I say 'carer' very deliberately in order to include and celebrate step-parents, mentors, adopters and any other adult bringing up a child, whether as a single adult or a couple, married or not. Whoever the hell you are, as long as you provide all these things, the kid in your charge is seriously unlikely to end up in trouble!

[ I am deliberately side-stepping the single-mums/absent fathers debate for this post so you don’t get distracted! I will talk about this hot topic in its own right later.. And another caveat: I am not saying that a child missing any of the items on this list is doomed to eternal violent offending – I am just trying to describe a complete framework that most effectively eliminates it. ]

In the end I was surprised by the length and significance of this list. For a carer to provide all this requires enormous and increasingly rare levels of self-sacrifice, dedication, tolerance, and income (in that order!!). So here goes – I’ve left it mainly as a list – analysing every point would render the blog unreadable:

What an effective carer provides:

· Physical safety (protection). This is a crucial point. If the child feels that his carers cannot keep him safe in the house, he will find ways to spend as much time outside the house as possible.
And if he is in danger outside at play or on the way to/from school, (and worse if he also feels the police can't or won't keep him safe), he will automatically seek to protect himself in some other way - typically safety in numbers, defensive equipment of some sort, and overt aggression to deter any potential attackers. Look at the markings on caterpillars that serve to warn off predators... an aggressive swagger and clothing associated with 'being dangerous' is a viable self-defence mechanism. (See my post on ‘fear’ at http://uk-youthviolence.blogspot.com/2009/06/fear.html ).

· Supervision. A child who knows he is not being checked on will be silly, period. They're silly even when they are checked on. My boy and his mate recently decided to wee in a box and put the box in his clothes drawer, despite regular checkups... imagine if they weren’t being checked on at all. This becomes more sinister when they start to experiment with explicit and violent media, booze, drugs, sex, weapons, gangs and so on. An unsupervised child is a lost soul.
Linked to supervision is the concept of early detection. An effective carer will look for and spot early signs of unhappiness, conflict, or disengagement. In doing so the carer stands a chance of helping the child share their issues and advising them on a solution before it is too late.

· Education. In the wider sense – not only the school curriculum (but of course helping with homework and learning is absolutely vital, to the point where I think schools presuppose that this is happening and so the absence of it is damaging). This is a huge topic but can be broadly described as teaching everything else about life that schools don't - which I could categorise into knowledge or personal skills. Knowledge could include including family planning and personal finance, skills could include avoiding conflict, influencing, etc. I'll explore a few vital skills below: emotional literacy, self-calming, peaceful conflict resolution and social protocol.

· Emotional literacy. This is a buzzword that basically means the child can recognise and distinguish between different types of (mostly negative) emotions. This is crucial because without this skill the child typically turns any negative experience (frustration, humiliation, embarrassment, sadness etc) into anger and onwards into violence. Learning the different types allows him to then key into different self-calming mechanisms he learns with the help of his carer.

· Peaceful conflict resolution. Well it doesn't get more relevant than this does it. Just the thought of this raises my pulse, as I flashback to the last few days of prizing my two young half-term kids from eachother's throats because one wouldn't share or the other one was provoking them or on and on. This for a parent is the utterly depressing and life sapping reality of child-rearing. But this is the front line. All kids come into the world only knowing the fist as a mechanism for who gets what. Alpha male nature show business. Only by a (so far 7 years and counting) grind of multi-daily examples and taught alternatives do they learn to empathise, trade, negotiate, boobytrap, swindle and do other vile but ultimately non-violent things to resolve conflicts. Lord of the flies. This is it folks!

· Social protocol. Sorry couldn't think of a better word. Basically the carer teaches (excplicitly and by example) how the child should behave around others in the social/demographic group that the CARER intends or expects the child to live and interact in. This either means that the positive carer 'brainwashes' the child to behave in a way that is acceptable and expected in , say, Cambridge University and the Department of Children Schools and Families - where the carer hopes the child will end up. .. or it means the carer brainwashes the child to be loud, bigoted, aggressive, violent, racist, and other lovely things because that carer knows that anything other than this behaviour set will be rejected by the childs peers and seniors and ultimately his work colleagues. OR it means the carer doesn't give a stuff where the kid ends up, but just wants the kid not to make the carer look a fool in front of the carer's peers. Anyway the point is that social mobility is not just a function of access to money and good schools - it is a function of what the carer teaches the child to aim for and crucially how the carer teaches the child to behave around others. I believe classism or tribalism is far more prevalent than racism in employment discrimination terms, but that race can often be used as a lazy proxy for a social class. Just as often it is the spoken accent by the way. OK lets move on.

· Incentive structures. Something to gain, something to lose. A child who has neither will fall into despair and bitterness, and will have no reason to resist negative pressures. Study yourself: most of the things you do or refrain from doing are driven by external social and financial incentives (and occasionally by internal values which also serve as an incentive i.e. the avoidance of internal feelings of guilt/shame). I very much doubt that the reason you don’t smack your irritating work colleague in the teeth is because it is illegal.
The effective carer will build an intricate web of external promises and threats that will help guide a child through life, and also shape the child’s internal values that will go on to serve as an internalised incentive set.
This topic also covers ‘discipline’, it being one of the negative incentives on offer. See next.

· Fair discipline in the context of caring. I chose those words carefully. Physical punishment need not be a damaging experience for a child if the child knows that it is a last resort, that the carer does not like doing it and doesn't want to do it ever again, and that it is because the carer is worried about the child's future so badly that they are resorting to it, because all else has failed. And, of course, that it is not physically or mentally damaging. This of course implies that all else HAS been tried and failed…and is one of the most hotly debated issues.

· Diversion. Another crucial topic. Endless debate rages about insufficient activities for kids. But I think this is actually a proxy for the real problem: insufficient activities delivered by carers. Put simply if (big IF) the carer is financially able, and has enough time, to personally find, suggest, encourage, finance, and accompany the child to various positive pro-social activities…the child will not ever be bored, understimulated, lonely, unsupervised or kicking about on the street. And he will never need a youth club.
This of course requires the carer to unselfishly give up various things they would enjoy themselves, in order to benefit the child. Call me old-fashioned but this is the essence of parenting isn’t it?

· Reinforcement and celebration of independent positive thinking: the absolutely crucial ability the child must develop to allow friends / close colleagues/peers to make stupid dangerous decisions without the child getting involved or 'following' them. The ability to stay on your straight track when those around you derail. The effective carer gives the child the skills and self-confidence to do this, and sets up the incentive structure to give the child something to lose by getting drawn in / something to gain by walking away!

· Encouragement and celebration of positive achievement - building true self-esteem / confidence, and reinforcing the love of learning and achievement

· Structure / Routine - especially sleep discipline, school homework time, good eating habits, personal hygiene - but also indirectly teaching the child to accept and thrive in a disciplined and structured environment without railing against authority (without this skill, staying in school or holding down a 'proper job' is not easy). Many carers are ineffective simply because their own routine is awful and so the kid doesn’t stand a chance.

· Employment advantage – really important this one: assistance in finding and applying for vacancies, in particular providing contacts and personal recommendations to get you that first job. I wonder what percentage of the employed got their first break in this way as opposed to a cold application? hmmm

· A positive role model - This is all about 'cognitive' learning i.e. learning by example not by explicit teaching. There are too many aspects to list here but things like: showing how to handle disagreement in a non-aggressive way; respecting and having a relationship with (hopefully only one) woman; being scrupulously honest; respecting authority; spending money wisely; balancing work vs. leisure; and putting children's needs ahead of your own needs.
For the record this is not the meaning of ‘role model’ that most people refer to – which is typically an extremely high earner. I’m talking about a life skills role model.

· Unconditional love and care - building feelings of self-worth, and teaching by example how to love and care tolerantly for others even when they are driving you mad. The unconditional bit is important because it encourages a child to tell his carers the truth, confide in them and seek their advice on difficult situations.

· Sympathy and understanding - an ear to bash / a shoulder to cry on, enabling and coaching the child to progress through negative emotions of hurt, humiliation, frustration, anger and hatred – to a calmer more rational state – and ultimately on to states like acceptance, forgiveness or reconciliation.

· Support and 'backup' of the child and the school in the context of his schooling - i.e. working with the school and child to resolve difficult situations, This means the carer protects their child from possible discrimination/abuse/bullying by the school or other pupils. But it also means being reprimanded by the carer for unacceptable behaviour in the school on the other hand. Without this crucial engagement and advocacy role, the child is quite simply halfway to exclusion.

· Food and drink. Seems a bit obvious but certainly judging by my own bratz, they very often are horribly agitated and aggressive towards eachother until they have a wholesome and natural hot meal.

I say again: even a child getting most or all of this list could still conceivably become violent - other factors could conceivably rise up, combine and overshadow all this. But I firmly believe that a child raised with all of the above is the least likely to become embroiled in sustained, serious violence.

I need the success stories!
Getting back to the positive message, I intend to find some of the millions of very disadvantaged but non-violent young boys who live in the worst estates and attend bad schools, preferably black, preferably with a single mum, who have kept their noses clean and come out of school approximately sane and content and with some qualifications. I want to interview the families and ask the carer what their winning formula was, and look to see what other services the boy was also getting from the state and the third sector – if any.
But this is harder than it sounds – I recently asked some professionals in youth intervention (state and third sector) to put me in touch with some of these success stories…but they of course both said “sorry we don’t know any of those!”.

Get in touch with me if you can hook me up!

Wilful neglect or emotional disability?
I could even go so far as saying that any carer who genuinely could, but out of selfishness does not, provide these ‘services’ to their child, is neglecting their child as badly as if they were not washing or feeding them (which is probably happening too).
I deliberately say ‘out of selfishness’ to distinguish the idea of a selfish/self-centred neglectful carer from the one who is not delivering the goods due to their own financial or emotional handicaps or due to a lack of skills/advice/experience/support.

This notion of a carer ‘choosing’ to put their own needs above those of their kids typically triggers feelings of revulsion in ‘normal’ folks, and triggers urges to punish them somehow, to make them ‘change their evil ways’. Call me naive but I hang on to the belief that no parent or carer who has experienced a carer’s love and support could deprive their child of it unless some fundamental issues were preventing them from delivering it themselves.

In some cases I suspect that not being able to provide for your child must feel so abjectly awful that you ultimately distance yourself from the child to protect your own brutal feelings of shame and guilt. I have this nagging feeling, for example, that there is a link between impoverished unemployed black fathers abandoning the family and that father’s feeling of uselessness at not being able to secure a decent future for the family (see a later post I will write on the wider effects of historical overt racism in the UK, gulp). There will be myriad other reasons but I’ve never seen anyone offer this one up (apologies to any psychologists and advocates of ‘Post Traumatic Slave Disorder/Syndrome’ - Google it – who have made this case before me)

In the same way as I think all babies are born as evil (or innocent) as eachother, I also think that a carer’s ability and actions are shaped primarily by nurture, not nature. Hence the horror of the perpetual cycle of abuse, which I will live and die trying to break.

Blame-gaming is ultimately unconstructive: a stranger, or the state, criticising an outwardly self-centred parent will achieve nothing other than causing them to further disengage from the civilised society that they feel is persecuting them. In the end I think only personal aspiration, cultural influence, and education/skill building (as opposed to threat of legal sanction) can make a carer put their child’s needs ahead of their own desires.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

child behaviour problems: the role of teachers, parents, the curriculum - and how to upset the Daily Mail editor.

Read this first please. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8281641.stm

Let's look at the language: "tackle" "problem pupils" "tough" "will not be tolerated" "should be isolated".

Move them aside! Put them with other bad kids just like them! Punish them! Criticise them! Persecute the badness out of them! When are we (especially the punitive Sir Alan and his ilk) going to wake up?

Punish the child for the teacher's incompetence? Hold on a minute!
We have got it @rse about face. Instead of looking at these pupils as 'problems' that basically get in the way of delivering the curriculum to all the samey, bovine, quiet children, why not accept that in fact the school's primary challenge is to find ways to teach the disruptive kids behaviour sets that they haven't learned yet, in a way that the kids engage with? And celebrate the achievements when they progress towards them? If a teacher cannot engage with a problem child, and find which buttons to press to motivate a 'problem child', despite the teacher's advanced age and all their training, then I say that teacher is failing too. Maybe the *teacher* should be isolated to prevent them from failing promising but 'emotionally disabled' young children? Do us parents have access to legal powers to "tackle problem teachers"?? No, they are masters of their own kingdom in that closed classroom where it is their word against the child's, where it is easier to expel than excel.

Perhaps we could sentence the teachers to a 'permanent exclusion', and put them in a 'TRU' (Teacher referral Unit) where they can join lots of other punitive and uninspiring teachers. We could give them the 'easy' kids to teach, who will learn whatever they have in front of them, and keep the inspiring and talented teachers to work with the problem kids who really desperately need help. Cast your mind back to when you were at school: I bet there were some charismatic teachers who even the worst kids behaved well for. And I'll bet that teacher paid them special attention and went out of his way to show that he liked them and believed in them.

And here's another thing - I'm willing to bet that well over half of all problem kids are actually among the brightest, most creative and outspoken kids in the school in terms of ability. The 'problem teacher' fails to spot this and concentrates on the outward behaviour pattern instead. The 'problem teacher' does not give them harder or more challenging work or targeted help. The 'problem school' does not put them in their 'gifted and talented' scheme, or describe them as having special educational needs in terms of how much educational stimulation they require. Oh no, they're TOO NAUGHTY. So the kid is bored in class and talks a lot. Is that supposed to be a surprise?

So now the child gets 'isolated' to protect all the 'good' children. Confused and upset, the child lashes out behaviourally and becomes slightly worse than before. As soon as a child is marginalised and socially rejected (do not underestimate the crushing, humiliating, effect of being rejected and frowned upon by the only authority figure in a young person's life: their teacher, in front of their peers), the self-fuelling cycle of failure -> unhappiness -> bad behaviour -> failure begins, which serves to accelerate and worsen the child's behaviour degradation. The good kids tell their interested parents who is being disruptive and being sent to the headmaster's office. The parents suddenly don't invite that kid to the next jelly and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey party any more. Educational rejection widens into social rejection. And all because that child had not learned to behave like the mainstream yet.

Let's say that child could be called 'behaviourally disabled'. Now let's look at a child who has gammy legs. Will she be punished for not running fast enough in PE? No, so tell me how it is fair to reject, isolate and intimidate a 6 year old child whose only crime is that he has failed to learn how to shut up in class or how to share and take turns? If we don't keep these 'problem kids' very close to us, and find positive motivational paths towards positive 'normal' behaviour sets, we are failing them and we become a substantial *cause* of their worsening behaviour. We have to show them what they stand to gain by behaving well, and what they stand to lose in the long run by behaving badly. Read on to see commentary about how we have to consider the good kids education too - I'm not a blinkered ultralib.

Punish the parents then! Yeah!!
As as for the parents thing, I am taken aback at how facile Alan and Ed are being here. If the parent (s) (or general adult in the child's life) has, so far, failed to teach the 'accepted' behaviours, it can only be for one of four reasons:

1. The parent does not give a damn how the child behaves, and behaves appallingly themselves ("problem parent")
2. The parent really cares, but has not learned how best to teach their child how to behave yet (parents don't get training: teachers do)
3. The parent is doing all the right things and really really cares, but the kid is a bit behind the pace emotionally and just isn't able to be quiet in class yet, or deal with conflict peacefully. Like a kid who is good at literacy but a bit crap with numbers, for example.
4. The parent is from a culture or demographic group where certain ways of expressing yourself and behaving, seen as acceptable and normal to that culture, is unfortunately what middle class people (who I suspect account for a majority of teachers) think is unacceptably rude or disruptive.

Whichever of those four it is, "strengthening our message to parents" and reminding parents that they "play a crucial role and have a responsibility to support their school's behaviour policy" will have absolutely no effect at all on the parents of these particular 'problem' children:

Camp (1) will tell the school to f*** off,
camp (2) will die of shame and feel awful about how incompetent they are and probably take it out in anger at the child, whose behaviour will worsen because of the new upset
camp (3) will feel completely exasperated and powerless and grow a lot of grey hairs.
camp (4) will feel persecuted and probably cry classism, racism or other ism.

IT WON'T MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE, ED AND ALAN. Actually it will make it worse. HOW IS THIS NOT OBVIOUS TO YOU??? Maybe, JUST MAYBE, it really is obvious to you, but you are too preoccupied with pacifying the Daily Mail readers (editors actually), and being seen to be 'tough on scum'... and don't have the guts or the permission to implement a difficult-to-sell 'supporting the most needy' policy that will actually work.

Locking the parents up will worsen the kid's behaviour. Fining the parents might just wake up camps 1 and 4 that there might be something in it for them to work on the kid...but more likely will cause the parent to disengage and hate the school, co-operating less than before. Never in my life have I seen punishment and conflict achieve positive outcomes unless delivered in a context of care and positive aspiration.

OK then smartass, how would YOU like it if your good kid was being disrupted by a problem kid? Huh??
Well it's funny you should say that: he is! And still I don't want the 'problem' kid isolated, labelled and persecuted, and I don't want the kid's exasperated, suffering mother to spend any more nights awake crying out of fear for her child's future and powerlessness in the face of the school's heavy handed tactics.
No, I want to ~work with~ the problem kid, get to know him, help him flourish and develop and enjoy learning, help him see why it's easier for everyone if he just keeps his finger on his lips in class even though he's desperate to say something and play with his friends.
I want the school to rise to the challenge and work with the boy and his parents in a positive caring way. I want them all to come out rewarded and satisfied with a job well done, and most of all I want the boy to get on with being a star pupil and show the school how badly they are missing the point.
Meanwhile I will teach my child the valuable lifeskills of blanking out background noise (I have to do this with my 'problem colleagues' at work who seldom shut up but get paid lots of wonga for the privilege), resisting the urge to copy children who are getting themselves in trouble, and succeed despite disruption. But then I'm different to many parents who only care about their own. I'm also lucky enough to see the 'problem boy' outside of school, where I see that he is unusually kind and caring, extremely sensitive, and incredibly smart. He just has the worst case of selective hearing that I've ever seen!

OK then smartass, I take it you have a better idea - or are you just an 'armchair teacher' who only knows how to criticise?
So what can be done about problem children. Why should the good kids suffer because of the bad kids? Have I got a better idea? Yes I have actually, but it is expensive and it will upset people who read (sorry - ~write~) the Daily Mail. Am I willing to pay more tax if that is what it takes? Yes I am: you can't have your cake and eat it. Here is an outline:

1. Think of the 'problem kids' differently
For a start I would like the problem kids rebranded. They are unfortunate children with special educational needs. Some are crap at literacy, some are deaf, some are disruptive. The education system already adopts this approach, and if the guidance (http://www.teachernet.gov.uk/wholeschool/sen/sencodeintro/ - use link at bottom to get the PDF) is followed properly it can deliver great results.
Interestingly a full ~quarter~ of SEN children (with no statement) are in the 'behaviour' category - close second only to 'moderate learning difficulties'. See the 'primary need tables' excel doc at http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/SFR/s000852/index.shtml .
Many (but not all) of the disruptive kids are enduring brutal and aggressive and chaotic lives at home. They need our help, desperately.

2. Teach behaviour and emotional skills as a key part of the curriculum ~before~ academic skills.
Next, I would like a fundamental change of perspective in the education system. Where a school has a high proportion of disruptive children, the focus of the curriculum needs to shift to FIRST stabilising behaviour at the youngest age (I'm talking nursery, reception, year 1), and ONLY THEN focussing on academic achievement. This can of course occur in parallel a bit, but it's about the ~emphasis~ of school early years objectives. Don't teach numbers and shout at the wriggling boys. Teach sitting and listening - and drop some numbers in. As any professionals reading this should admit to themselves: people skills/emotional intelligence ('EQ') is even more important in life and the workplace than academic skills.
Please don't tell me schools are already doing it with a token 'Personal and Social Education (PSE)' half hour now and then. That is better than nothing, I admit, but it is tokenistic. I want PSE to be wider and the main focus.

2. Spend disproportionately more money on SEN children
This is the one that bites. This one puts equality on the page. This one really annoys people who believe that we are in a 'survival of the fittest' contest, that naughty kids should basically be erased - or left to erase themselves. People who believe in the death penalty ahead of prevention and rehabilitation. And so on. This one says that 'good children' are endowed with so much natural advantage through their birth, environment and inherited social network, that they can still reach the top even if we spend less on them. This one says that if there was only one lump of available money that could be spent on ~either~ SEN OR 'Gifted and talented', that it should all go to SEN. If you baulk at this, sit back for a minute, swallow the pill and think afresh at how this could work - then read on.

3. Spend a small fortune on children who end up excluded from mainstream education
This one ~really~ hurts the Daily Mail editor. He will choke on his 11am gin and tonic and retch into his BNP membership pack. IF we do 1,2 and 3, then for a start the numbers of permie exclusions will go down, big time. We could even just divide the existing pot amongst way fewer kids and get the small fortune I'm after. For seconds, if these muppets manage to get themselves excluded despite 1,2 and 3, then there is something ~severely~ amiss in their lives and they are in extreme danger. Therefore, unless we explicitly want them in jail, dead, or committed to a mental institution (probably via a string of violent crimes ruining countless lives), we are obliged to throw everything we've got at them, no holds barred. I don't mean ticking a few boxes, I mean unleashing the full force of social innovation on these people. Literally carrying them through life until they can walk. If there is one ultra clear signal, a flare soaring through the night sky, it is permanent exclusion. Take the signal and send out the lifeboat.

As you can see, the theme is to be less judgemental and to chuck resources at those who are failing. I have another post brewing up where I will give you a braindump of why it makes major, long term, social and economic sense to adopt this approach.

This will only ever reach centre stage politically if the people get behind it. That's YOU LOT. Make some noise!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

More on FEAR and the real impact of poverty

I saw this comment by 'Ruth Ray' in May 2008. It is wonderfully eloquent and concise. I am reproducing it here because it backs up my theory on the impact of Fear (see http://uk-youthviolence.blogspot.com/2009/06/fear.html) and because it also backs up my theories on the impact of changes in the UK economy away from unskilled industries towards service industries, and the impact of living in a rough area in a tiny flat.

OK it's only anecdotal, not a scientific paper, and I'm biased because I'm not printing any counterfactual. That's my prerogative, so bite me. The original can be found at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/yourview/1975043/Whats-the-best-way-to-curb-youth-violence.html along with a typical spread of right-wing moronic comments. Where you see bold I added it for emphasis.

"I have a friend who is a single mum, like most - not through choice but due to marital breakdown. Did you know that domestic violence kills more women aged between 19 and 44 than anything else? Like many she would love to have the strength and support of a loving and caring partner - but such eligible men are few and far between and her experience has taught her caution. As she said to me once, 'I would never trust another man with my kids.'

My friend fled a violent marriage with her young children and is one of the toughest mothers I know. She certainly doesn't 'spare the rod' with them. They also have a strong faith life. But in their neighbourhood gangs rule. Drugs and violence are commonplace. My friends kids are now well into teen-age. There are no secular clubs or innocent activities for the young people in that area and my friend's sons (who are my 'honorary grandsons') are tempted to carry knives because of their real fears. They have started to stay out late and both my friend and I are very worried.

The boys are taller and stronger than their mother. She can't force them to do anything. As far as she knows they do not carry knives � but while they don't own 'designer weapons' there are vegetable knives in the kitchen quite sharp enough to act as a lethal weapon. You can't lock teenage kids up in a cramped house, with nothing but the television, and expect them to stay healthy or sane. But the streets and gangs round there are crazy. The boys don't want to get into gang life but they have to have some friends.

I was reading all these blogs to see how best to advice my 'honorary grandsons' and to be honest I've found it depressing. So much hot air, prejudice and ignorance. So much total ignorance about what the real life for families like this is like. The most useful comment for me on the blogs here is that 'everyone needs a sense of belonging.' In the inner cities this comes from gang membership. If someone like my 'grandsons' lives in a gang-dominated district they will be bullied if they don't join a local gang - and that means real danger as well as social isolation. But if they join the gang they are likely to get dragged in to many activities � including crime and being around people who carry knives � or guns - which they do not want to be involved with. And once involved in a gang it is almost impossible to get out again. Breathe a word about anything you know to the police and you put your entire family at risk from every gang in the district.

Fear is the controlling force. I read recently that studies of youngsters in prison showed over 40% had been pressured by gangs into their crimes and had no wish at all to do those things - but they did not know how to get their lives free. This is an area which needs a lot of study and effective action.

My friend survives on benefits and lives in a council house. She would love to move, to live in a 'good' area with a house big enough for her kids to have their own room and a garden. She's been trying to get an exchange for over 10 years. She would love a job that paid enough to run a car so she could take the kids out sometimes even on holiday - but her priority is to be a good mother and make sure she is at least there for the kids when they get home from school and they all can sit down for a meal together in the evening. As she says - the kids are her responsibility. If she's not there for them, no-one else will be. Her 'life' can start when they're grown.

My grandsons would like to get work. An income would give pride and prestige as well as opening up possibilities of travel and escape from the ghetto life. But unskilled jobs are few and far between for young lads with no experience, poor education, no transport and the handicap of an unsavoury post-code. If anyone has any genuine answers to this dilemma or any tried and tested good advice for me, my friend or my grandsons I would welcome it.

I think that it is an idea to remember the Native American proverb, 'Never criticise anyone until you have walked a mile in his moccasins' I think the African proverb is also pertinent - 'It takes a whole village to raise a child.' My own view is that there are no simple answers. But the more we can work with real people and real situations and not indulge ourselves by repeating false and facile generalisations, the more hope of finding a genuine and effective way forward. "

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

A case in point: alcohol advertising

Picking up on the tension between social benefit vs social harm, here is a topical article in the socially-minded Guardian today:

In an offsetting statement:
"The BMA is ignoring all the evidence that advertising causes brand switching, not harmful drinking," said David Poley, chief executive of alcohol industry trade body the Portman Group.
"A ban would not improve our drinking culture and could even be counter-productive. The University of Sheffield found it would create fiercer price competition which could actually increase overall consumption. Lasting social change can be achieved only through sustained education accompanied by proper enforcement of the alcohol laws."

This reminded me of another key concept I'll be exploring more: the differences between 'need' and 'want'... and the difference between hostile/exploitative advertising that aims to stimulate a 'want' and even convince you it is a 'need' or 'deserved', and on the other hand advetising that aims to get you to switch brands for a product you already were going to buy (typically on the need side e.g. toilet bleach).

I will be exploring how much of the UK economy is accounted for by 'want' spending vs 'need' spending, and I'll explore ways in which the consumer could change to wanting less harmful things, and ways in which advertising could operate without driving the current cycle of:

1. damage someone's self-esteem / self-worth, then
2. Offer them a product that will restore the self-esteem

Obviously this is done in a clever subconscious manner, but this is the technique in a nutshell. Make people feel inadequate and show them that they can buy their way out of the negative feeling. This of course is a nonsense. The purchase does little (beyond 1hr) other than add stress to the purchaser who has probably extended their debt or reduced their savings in order to buy it.

The advertising industry is absolutely brilliant at its job. Think what those same brains could achieve towards positivity if incentivised correctly.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

(Socially) sustainable Capitalism

I've been musing for some time now over how to make this into as big a buzzword as environmental sustainability.

It's the idea that, for the mutual benefit of business and individual, capitalism needs to nurture, or at least not continue to endanger, social fabric. Just as destroying the environment will have a detrimental effect on business as well as the dog-walker, accelerating social decline will too. An anarchistic and mentally ill social environment is bad for business (hence the concentration of business in socially stable places and flight from countries that break down politically into excess violence).

The model does exist in embryonic form: for some years there's been a 'Corporate Social Responsibility' CSR agenda (companies should have a policy and brag about it in networking circles and brochures), which wierdly tended to concentrate more on the environment...as if it was a proxy for society. These days it is more being called simply Corporate Responsibility. But it is a niche scene, and is overwhelmed with bad press provided by over-simplistic 'protestors' who unfortunately don't have much to offer by way of better ideas, more just blowing hot air about the things they don't like...and hence they can comfortably be ignored by those in the know and in the driving seat.

I'd like to see it argued through in economic terms by economists, to add some credibility - if there is any to be had.

There is a grim socially-disconnected angle to all this: if capitalism kills the environment, the next big growth area simply becomes environmental repair, or protection from the consequences of environmental degradation...business moves on by morphing into industries designed to repair the damage done by its previous incarnation. Similarly in a more anarchic environment, 'security' becomes a lucrative trade. In this model society suffers while business thrives. I don't think a well-oiled economy would actually get that far (reference the explosive growth of the green sector in recent years... i.e. the world considers itself close enough to a horizon-level environmental disaster to invest big-time in reversing the trend before we get there), but then this is probably because people (esp the credible FoE) got it on the agenda.. which is why I want social impact on the agenda.

Let me be clear: I see no better mechanism for general social stability, and matching population growth, than the free market (succinctly argued in para6, p4 of web link below). However it is fundamentally based on a social/financial hierarchy, with disproportionately more people earning disproportionally less in order to secure profit for the few. This is not heresy, just how it works. I just think we need to keep one eye on the bottom rungs to be sure that the disenfranchised (for whatever reason) do not get to the point of revolting or doing so much lasting damage to themselves and those around them that our country / world becomes a grotesque place in which to live... or becomes an unattractive base for business which could contribute to serious economic decline (with associated social disaster). As much as anti-capitalists don't want to hear this, in this case I think it is better to improve a predictable, workable system rather than cause even greater upheaval by attempting to overthrow it. Like Aikido martial art: use the energy of your attacker to control him.

The true free-marketeers will probably inform me that a truly free market would take care of this all by itself. Maybe we haven't got one that is free enough, or maybe this isn't the case. In any case I think the debate should be on an agenda somewhere, just as protection of the environment has become pretty embedded in the corporate mindset of today. This will be a huge challenge though, because environmental damage is clear cut and objectively measurable... but social damage is tricky to quantify, and can be argued as self-inflicted (the environment rarely hurts itself by drinking too much high-strength effluent). Is this why we shy away from thinking about it - because it is so complex and politically fraught?

A really good paper on the subject is here: http://web.missouri.edu/ikerdj/papers/WI%20Baraboo%20--%20Sustainable%20Capitalism.htm. There will be a later blog that discusses the topic in its entirety, concentrating on illustrating the mechanisms whereby Capitalism is on the causative side of social ailments and ultimately violence - and making clumsy attempts (as a non-economist) at proffering ideas for the future, but this latter activity I prefer to give to the professionals to debate and act upon. But never forget that capitalism is absolutely fundamental to *preventing* violence as well (I will explain myself on this too). So it's a fascinating case.

If any of you happen across related literature, be sure to let me know!

There is a connection to youth violence here. Most of the violent youth are the offspring of the underclass, most of whom fell off the legal capitalist ladder a long time ago (or never got on - except for on the buy side via credit cards) but are well embedded in the black market side of capitalism. I think that it is in large part because they have *so little to lose* that their behaviour deregulates (My Dad always said it is crucial for every citizen to have 'skin in the game'), which empowers my call for keeping them in the legal Capitalist foodchain somehow.

PS May I point out advertising of products such as anti-wrinkle cream, which only exists because the industry-led media channels have successfully sold wrinkles as being undesireable. In this way a socially negative effect of Capitalism (self-loathing) is in fact the driving force for an entire industry sector. I could even argue that a great many forms of disliking one's current status are driven by capitalist forces to the financial benefit of capitalists... But this is the exact battleground of the debate: those same 'nasty' industries employ armies of people who are socially benefited by having an income... but could there have been another industry instead of that one?

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The trouble with girls? A missed opportunity by the BBC

I just watched ‘the trouble with girls: Jailbirds’ on BBC. See it here:

Here are my thoughts. Please do read it all, there are important points made throughout.

About the program:
It was a very useful recording of 6 months of two repeat offenders’ lives (one white, 17; one black, 20), but it was another abject failure to help the nation understand what is going on behind their false joviality, multiple drug addictions, petty criminality and quick anger.
In a way it could be described as voyeurism, as a program producer making money out of letting the middle classes stare curiously at the criminal classes (I don’t really think ‘dispatches’ types of documentaries are high on the viewing scale for the working classes and the criminal underclass). But I won’t dwell on this cynical view: let’s get back to an analysis of what was shown.

What was the moral of the story?
Many will have interpreted it as more evidence of the widespread existence of disrespectful and repulsive benefit cheats. Indeed I feel the producers dwelled too much on the girls’ descriptions of Jail as a nice place to be (“Butlins with bars”), dwelled graphically and gratuitously on their drinking exploits, and the very few bits of commentary by the camerawoman/narrator at the start set the tone by describing days filled with drink, drugs, and dodging CCTV.

However: my lasting impression was simply of two very depressed young girls who felt there was no hope for them in mainstream society, no hope of financial independence and no hope of happiness. They struck me as crippled by a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. All the statutory training and rehab programs were skipped because they felt it was so inevitable that they would end up in jail – and so there was no point in trying to break the cycle. They basically felt life was completely futile. In that context their cheery personas and episodes of positive resolve struck me as extraordinary and fantastic. But in that context also it was very easy to see how drug-induced escapism, and the criminality that accompanies it, are massive and hard to resist temptations.

About Shona
Shona, the black girl, was an interesting case. She was charismatic, a good reader, funny, and struck me as having a good level of intelligence/philosophical outlook. Watching her interact with the camera and with others, I could imagine her as a strict but irresistible and motivating shop floor manageress. However her only success was the length of the list of convictions she had notched up – mostly shoplifting, assault (when drunk), disturbing the peace. She was however keen to point out that she never mugs anyone, and she viewed shoplifting as acceptable - because it was covered by the retailer’s insurance (that savvy streak almost had me convinced)!

Why so angry, Shona?
Shona was extremely keen to uphold her reputation as a ‘bad girl’ i.e. physically aggressive and dangerous, not to be messed with, although she didn’t seem very comfortable with it in private. She was clearly ashamed to be seen crying, and was amazingly emotionless a lot of the time – the only emotion she was happy to display was anger. Why might that be?
Could it be something to do with being a non-white person in Doncaster, one of the racist far-right strongholds that are the shame of our country? Might she have grown up having to learn to live with racist abuse on a daily basis at school and on the estate? I think so, 110%, combined with a probable home life featuring mild physical and emotional neglect, being ignored and unsupported.

When you are feeling like dogshit because of the taunts you have been subjected to, and when this feeling persists over weeks, months, years, you find ways to cope with it better, or you break down. The most common coping recourse (for those who do not get help and love from their carers) is anger and aggression. If you feel so sad you could cry – just turn it into rage directed at someone else. Shout and rant – that way you won’t suffer the humiliation and self-disgust of crying again. In fact you will feel elation, briefly. Equally, if you act overtly aggressively to anyone who looks at you or starts to taunt you, they are likely to pick someone softer to abuse. Shona demonstrated this twice: once at the kid on the bike and his mates (even I was intimidated), and once at a passer-by in the cafe near the end.

In private video-diary footage you see Shona becoming upset about something, then immediately winding herself up with a kind of roar into a state of anger. I have seen this with a good number of ‘bad’ children. The boy I mentor once became upset because the fun we were having came to an end after 2 hrs. He switched from lovable and extrovert, to angry and introvert. The hoodie was flipped up, his eyes steered into middle distance, he shoved me when I approached him – and all this (it later transpired) because he wanted to carry on with the fun activity and I had said no! Sure enough, after 30 mins of kind words and attention he finally succumbed and cried his little eyes out and wanted a cuddle... the same boy who 30 mins before looked like a proper 'thug'.

I fundamentally believe that anger is an extension of sadness – not something in its own right. It grows out of the negative feelings we initially feel – but as they are basically unbearable feelings, rage is a natural and easy escape route. Add alcohol, skunk, or worse still cocaine (or worse still by a mile -crack cocaine), or even a heady mix of the above, and the few inhibitions these children have are bypassed.

Another thing I took away about Shona was her frank outburst about the effect her Dad’s departure from the family (for another ‘fookin fat oogly bitch’) had on her. Let me take this opportunity to state that I believe a father leaving the family is one of the most common and most crippling traumatic events a child can have to survive , and so it was nice to have this view vilified by Shona. Generally the kid blames him/herself and for a long time carries feelings of guilt and self-disgust in their lives. These are not exactly conducive to sociable behaviour, success in school and drinking in moderation are they?

About Abbie
Abbie, the white girl, seemed as unintelligent and perpetually optimistic as her incessantly grinning and completely incompetent father. She was able to laugh off any ordeal or boring task, make light of her homelessness and endless evictions from hostels. She was recorded as being outwardly happy when drunk. She genuinely struggled with life outside of prison and repeatedly and clearly stated she wanted to go back to prison so that she would not have the anxiety that the demands of ‘freedom’ clearly gave her. She was said to have been drinking to unconsciousness on a regular basis from the age of 13.

One thing I took away in particular was that the only time I saw her really upset, unable to laugh it off, was the scene in her dad’s man-hovel of a flat. Basically Abbie was visibly hurt at her Dad’s lack of interest and compassion, which I call ‘emotional neglect’, and couldn’t contain her tears. This will have been a pattern since the early years, and will likely be one of the sources of her awful self-esteem and drinking.

Another thing I took away (maybe the presenter was trying to get this across without saying as much??) was that white Abbie was repeatedly pardoned and not imprisoned for breaches of her release conditions... but black Shona repeatedly suffered just the opposite! This is anecdotal evidence for the already well-quantified problem in the British criminal justice system whereby black people are treated more severely than their white counterparts for similar offences. Perhaps Shona was offensive and mouthy in the court room, I don’t know – but the headline didn’t look good.

In about the only decent question the simplistic narrator could muster, she asked Abbie if drinking made her happy – she said it did... and when the presenter asked if she could be happy without drink, Abbie looked truly forlorn and said it was not possible.

Is it the drugs???
The program dwelled at tedious length on how much the girls drank, and smoked weed and crack pipes. I fundamentally believe that the link from drugs to criminality and violence is primarily that the drugs take the internal inhibitions and self-restraints away from us – not that they somehow cause violence in their own right. When we are high, we say things we wouldn’t otherwise say. The white English demographic is internationally famous for being incapable of expressing amorous intentions unless on the wrong side of several units of alcohol...and yet we suppose mere CHILDREN should be able to maintain their inhibitions when on a cocktail of drugs? This is base hypocrisy or at best a lack of rational thinking.

Having said that, my own experience of (adult, fairly balanced) people taking cocaine and other drugs, is that they become (in their addled brains) irresistible to women and invincible in a fight. Their irritating behaviour is generally likely to cause someone else in the pub (high on legal alcohol) to become so annoyed as to insult the drug user or start a fight. So in a way, over and above the inhibition-removal, drugs can be the source of violence – or rather the spark that ignites the fire that then burns extra hot because of the lack of inhibition.

Now when disturbed and depressed young people take drugs, it unleashes all manner of disturbing behaviour. Quick to anger even when sober, they are much more likely to become enraged, they will become more enraged than most people, and much more quickly. This is because they exist in a background state of sadness, resentment and self-hatred. Think of it as a volcano. For you or I, the magma rises and falls in our chambers, but only seldom erupts because the levels of magma are relatively low – so there is a lot of slack to take up. For disturbed children, the magma at the best of times is very close to the surface, and so any trigger events will cause an eruption, and taking drugs will just weaken and crack the surface - making the eruption easier.

In summary – yes, the drugs are a major part of the causative landscape, BUT they are not in their own right. The children take them to get some respite from the negative feelings that plague them day and night. This in turn locks them into a dependency as the drugs bring on the only happy feelings they ever get. It also shatters any sleep routine they might have had, which shatters their ability to concentrate and makes them more irritable when sober. It also brings on a need for high cashflows... the rest isn’t rocket science. The problem is the SADNESS AND THE HOPELESSNESS.

What the program exposed
At no point did we see anyone giving these girls what they so desperately and obviously (to me) needed:
1. Time with someone non-judgemental, who they can open up to and admit how abjectly depressed and hopeless they feel. Someone who they can feel actually cares about them, is interested in whether they succeed or fail, are in jail or not, are happy or sad. In short, what a ‘good’ parent provides for their child most of the time. Note that this is unlikely to come from the state, except for a few vocationally-driven individuals...and even then the kids don’t really open up to government workers – they lump them all together along with the police as ‘the bad guys’ and keep them at arm’s length. I say that this role can only be performed by the charity sector, by motivated and trained vocational people.

2. Close logistical support on the transition from custody to freedom, to ensure basic physical needs are met. These girls were portrayed as being ejected from jail and left completely to their own devices in the hours and days afterwards – other than appointments they were forced to attend as a condition of release (and therefore saw as a hated obligation, not an offer of help).

3. Time with a trained psychotherapist (art therapy for Abbie, she clearly liked to express herself through drawing), to work through the deep-seated underlying issues that are driving the sadness and self-disgust, that trigger and drive the drug-taking and onwards to criminality. Until these basic problems, what I like to call ‘emotional disabilities’, are addressed, the negative cycle will continue.

What the program should have shown, in my opinion.
1. They should have had testimonials from primary and secondary school teachers of the girls, describing what experiences the girls had, and how they coped academically, and when they first saw signs of disaffection.
2. They should have covered the ofsted opinions of the girls’ schools during the years they attended.
3. The presenter should have asked less dumb factual questions like “how many units did you drink last night” and more meaningful questions like “I can see you’re feeling really angry after not being able to find a job today – what is making you angry – is it the thought of never escaping from the rut you are in, never being looked on as anything other than a thief and a fighter?”, and things like “if you could start all over again, what would you be doing right now” and “what are you really good at”!
4. The program should have been punctuated by ‘experts’ briefly analysing a piece of the girls’ behaviour – to help people see the deeper subtleties behind the simplistic outwards symptoms.
5. 1. Seeing as Abbie’s Dad was happy to be filmed (tellingly, Shona’s was not!), they should have asked more about Abbie’s transition from a happy baby (all babies start off happy, trust me on that one) to an unconscious drunk 13 year-old. Not covering this is almost negligent on the part of the producers I think, in that it places the burden of Abbie’s behaviour on herself rather that her environment.

OK braindump is finished! Thanks and goodnight.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The age of responsibility: a tough call

This is a bit of a brain-dump (I normally like to spend longer on these things). Stimulated by this BBC article today (16 June 09): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8100319.stm

Rules and exceptions
This debate can be viewed in part as a debate between macro-level principles and values on the one hand, and detailed micro case-studies on the other:

a)the macro effect of a low age of responsibility is to put a disproportionate amount of emotionally and physically neglected and abused children into jail, which has the side effect of reducing their chances of employment and social contribution from vanishingly small, to zero. So those with the least natural opportunity are given the least opportunity (via punishing them for something they did). As a headline, this tends to make people feel bad. It seems unjust in some way...

b)...but several detailed counterfactuals erode the case for raising it. The example given by MAMAA of olders coercing youngers into carrying drugs and weapons is a warning that must be heeded somehow if raising the age. This is a cruel irony that is the agony of policymaking: by putting in a law to protect younger kids you can unwittingly put *some* of them in more danger than they were in before!


One size fits all?

Also I think the debate is about the difficulty of pursuing a 'one size fits all' policy when children's circumstances vary so wildly within an age group. There are some 12 year olds who for their own reasons have grown up hard and fast, and seem fairly aware of what they are doing, whereas others genuinely make mistakes, or get coerced into doing something, or are what I call 'emotionally disabled' (see Vizard's key statement about developmental immaturity) and so cannot seem to appreciate the gravity of their actions. Raising the age is intended to protect the second group, to give them a chance to 'grow out of it' and become positive contributing citizens. But raising the age also has the effect of allowing the repeat offenders to offend without fear of sanction.

In the Daily Mail Briton's mind, this latter 'unfair' effect (the perception of letting young criminals off scott-free) far outweighs the benefits of protecting the vulnerable. "Screw the vulnerable" they say, as they selfishly focus only on protecting their personal interests, on ensuring that miscreants are basically eradicated (unless, presumably, it's their own child who offended, in which case there should be lenience because someone else led their little angel astray?). This is the crux of the debate: it is a battle to keep a selfless, societally-minded flame burning in today's culture and policy. It is an age-old battle to use legislation to protect ourselves from ourselves, from our tendency towards selfishness to the detriment of others... but in defending the greater good we must be careful not to inadvertently create a brand new set of negative issues that end up outweighing the success of the original policy intentions (a theme I will develop in another blog, called 'Beware of solutions').


Just shifting the problem?

Raising the age will only truly help those vulnerable kids to develop if they are simultaneously given sophisticated and enduring support to mend the various negative things they have endured that got them into this negative space in the first instance. Otherwise they will simply carry on misbehaving until they *are* older than the new minimum age, and then enter the criminal justice system (CJS) all the same. So an effective model must be to use the initial arrest/caution/whatever as a *trigger* to set off a bespoke, joined-up package of healing and development measures.


Life in Scandinavia

It was also interesting to see the BBC describing a model from another country. The thing to bear in mind here is that the law in Norway will be a projection of the values, culture and structure of Norway when the laws were passed : if they have a model that wortks it is because it is integrated with a lot of other Norway-specific features of public life. If you try to imagine applying this specific aspect of Norwegian law/crime prevention strategy to the UK, naturally you think it could never work here - because it would jar with other parts of UK law and service provision and create new issues and loopholes. A bit like putting in a mismatched heart from a donor into a heart-failure patient's body - the body will reject it unless it integrates holistically with the rest of the body.

I am mentioning this as a warning: we shouldn't reject something just because it won't fit *straight away* and easily. If the Norwegian model seems to work better than ours in terms of outcomes/statistics/public perception, then perhaps we should study their whole model to see if a fundamental shift in crime prevention is required in the UK. I would suggest that the growth rate in the prison population, combined with the incredibly high reoffending (aka recidivism) rates in the UK, are a pretty clear that something is not going as well as it could, so we should be open to fresh and radical ideas (but only if they are any good - I'm not a fan of radical new stuff just for the sake of it!)


The bigger picture - accept obstacles as a fact of life

Finally it is important to say that I do realise that the CJS is only *one part* of the jigsaw that represents the crime prevention landscape, the others being things like family, peers, schools, equal opportunity, health of the economy, housing policy. As a good friend pointed out to me, if a child's immediate family/"carer" situation is extremely negative, then there is a limit to what govt policy and initiatives can really achieve without the carers' support. But this must not be a reason to stop trying. It is as if we are saying "we would have the perfect solution, if it wasn't for the parents". This is the very essence of multiple deprivation: the kid is at the wrong end of several factors, each of which serves to reinforce one or more of the others: a perfect negative feedback loop. Here is a quote from a 1973 paper I was reading, by a guy who wrote about 'cybernetics' and was berating governments' lamentations over their economic crises:

"It has a political theory but it does not understand the system it is manipulating. It is just laughable to say for example; ' the theory is all right but the trade unions (or the city, or the banks, or the consumers) will not operate the theory'. The unions, the city, the banks and the consumers are all elements of the total system that the govt claims to be able to govern."

A successful remedial or preventative initiative should *study, understand, welcome, and integrate obstacles into its very being* - not wish them away. Here's a good example. Kids won't share a biscuit nicely, because they are both too selfish. So instead of blaming the kid for being selfish, you build selfishness into the solution: one has to break the biscuit, knowing that the other has to choose which bit she gets. Tai- Chi uses the attacker's momentum and aggression to bring the attacker down. Similar concept.

So perhaps we should stare the rubbish carers in the face and say "I accept you are part of the problem here, and I am going to focus on you as much as anything else". This of course is not easy - it trespasses into the private domestic space, a space where no govt is generally able to enter without someone shouting 1984, a space that opens the door to abuse by a bad govt. But this is the front line. If we can't work with today's parents, then we have to work on tomorrow's parents, whilst accepting that an improvement is at least a generation away. It should not be beyond the wit of man to turn this viscious circle into a virtuous circle.

In conclusion I would say:
this is a VERY difficult debate, I don't envy the poor sods having to call it
...but it is only one of very many factors in the overall game of crime prevention and social inclusion...
...and we must be careful not to inadvertently make new problems while we solve old ones...
...but we mustn't be put off by the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to progress: we must build the acceptance of these obstacles into a solution that uses their energy!
It is worth studing the scandinavians more - they are an interesting and very different social setup (but then they also dubiously dabbled in eugenics - look it up in wikipedia...)

Wednesday, 10 June 2009


Today's theme is FEAR. It does strange things to you. Some of you might know what I'm talking about.

QUESTION: When is the last time you felt a real and present danger to your physical safety because of another person / group of people?

For most of the people who think of violent kids as 'born evil', the answer is probably "not since I was at school". That's because they've moved somewhere safe, and are able to avoid dangerous places and situations. This location and avoidance is £expensive. For a minute, imagine that you were truly in danger, every day, and there was truly no realistic way of avoiding it. What would you do? Have a think please.

When was the last time you saw teenagers wierdly congregating in a really uncool place: a toddlers playground in a park. It happens a lot. Have you stopped to ask yourself WHY? Might it not be that they feel *safe* there? This is very different from thinking of it as deliberately malicious behaviour designed to offend parents and park goers. The kids might not even realise consciously that this is what they are doing (they certainly would not readily admit it as to admit fear is to admit weakness and become a victim, in their primal culture).
I have run this idea past two independent sets of gang members via mentoring networks. Both came out strongly in favour. One group said they regularly go to a wooded wasteland to mess about because they feel safer there.

Now imagine this: you are a kid and you get bullied every day very badly in the street on the way to / from school. This has gone on for 2 years. In the background you have friends whispering in your ear. "Join this gang, let people know you are running with them, and no-one will touch you". They don't bother spelling out the new types of different danger you will encounter, but tthose types are less certain. You might get caught and arrested carrying a weapon but you might not. You might get 'shanked' or shot... but only if your gang is less smart or less strong. You are more in control. It is better than being battered and robbed every day. Imagine the strength of character and foresight you would need to resist this offer, this offer that is reiterated every few days. Think it through.

Today (9 June 09) the story is out about Shaquille Smith, killed in a park. I know of rather a lot of killed teenagers, killed in a park. So where are all the letters demanding that we patrol parks more visibly such that children can be children and actually play in safety without having to tool up and gang up for mutual protection?

I once had a senior London Metropolitan police figure tell me that 'bad policing does not *cause* violence. Wrong: if a group of people feel that the police is not dedicated to protecting them in real and practical ways, then they will form alliances and tool up in order to protect themselves. This is so obvious if you think about it. That's why I asked you to imagine what you would do if you were in danger, unprotected and unable to move away from the danger. I submit that you too would be capable of travelling the same pathway as some of these kids.

Now you might think I'm an airhead lefty, claiming all these viscious teenagers are just misunderstood kids. Wrong, you will find why out if you stick to this blog over time. I just want you to think outside the press, think outside the box. Notice I said 'some' of these kids in the previous para. There are some kids who do have genuine alternatives, who can relatively easily live without danger, but seem to willingly enter a world of danger and violence. This is a separate issue altogether - I'll address this in another post.

Remember: try to think honestly what you might do and how you might behave if you were in constant danger, in a constant state of fear.