Saturday, 19 January 2008

The Normality of Violence in UK Schools

One thing about having a housemate who has a 6-year old child is that you get exposed to some of the goings-on in schools today, away from the distortions of the media. Back in the early 2000s I used to volunteer to read in schools to show children that men actually read (seven of us men used to go from our work once per week as all the staff and governors at the school next to the works were female and schoolboys, many of whom had no fathers at home, saw reading just as something that girls and women did), so was aware at least of the happenings in one school, but nowadays I am dependent for any information on UK education for the various media and other sources such as the child in the house. This latter source is revealing quite startling developments in UK education.

As I have said before, I live in a prosperous suburb where people are obssessed by consumption of cars, electrical goods, houses, etc. I have lived in very much poorer areas, notably in East London and Coventry. The crime rate is not very high, even burglaries seem lower than you would expect maybe because it abuts a very wealthy area with presumably much better pickings. I am giving this context to show that it is not a part of the UK where muggings are daily occurrences and there are drive-by shootings on the weekend. A couple of times a year a young person gets stabbed and once per year a middle-aged person gets kicked to death, but that seems typical of most medium-sized towns I pass through as I drive around the UK and pick up local news. What startled me was revelations about how normalised violence in schools seems to have become even in a prosperous area such as my neighbourhood. The boy in question last month was involved in a gang of seven boys who surrounded a girl in a classroom and proceeded to kick her. The cause seems to have been one of the boys, a very charismatic ringleader it seems, being embarrassed because his parents were friendly with the girl's parents and she was often at his house, something a 6-year old regards as uncool. (The whole incident alarmingly resembled a gang rape). This month, my housemate's son decided for seemingly no reason to start biting another boy he was arguing with about switching off a computer. He sunk his teeth in so deep that marks were still visible hours later.

In the UK the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old. Which means that if this boy keeps up such behaviour for another four summers he will soon be off to youth court on charges of assault or ABH (Acutual Bodily Harm) and presumably some kind of detention. Now these incidents happened in a school, in fact a Christian faith school and you do ask what were the teachers doing in terms of monitoring what was happening. The school seems to be so fearful of being sued by one parent or another that it appears to be unwilling to admit any responsibility for anything and accuses parents who try to find out what has happened of improper interference. Surely the school has some responsibility for what happens on its grounds? Can someone with legal knowledge tell me if 'loco parentis' has been removed from teachers? This washing of their hands of such incidents (and I assume there are many more going on given this is just one boy from one class, though he may be exceptional, from the previous incident there seem to be at least six others who behave the same). Primary schools usually have their 'golden rules' emblazoned everywhere around the school, but from what I gather this school does not under some assumption that Christian children do not need such explicit rules about not bullying. Even adult Christians need the word of the Bible interpreted for them often, let alone 6-year olds.

Putting aside the school and its unwillingness to face responsibility, what about the behaviour of the child. Surely someone should be communicating that such violent behaviour is not appropriate anywhere let alone in the school. The child had no explanation for why he did it, so it seems that he regards biting deeply as part of the normal arsenal of things he can use when another child annoys him. I know in London bites by humans on people exceeded bites by dogs on people back in the 1990s, so maybe many people consider it somehow 'normal'. Even if in the school they choose not to refer to normal behaviour in society, or the risks in coming years of police action, as a faith school do they not say something about God watching and noting such behaviour?

What is alarming for UK society as a whole is, if there seems to be no way to stop violence which goes beyond horse play or pushing and pinching, among children in their second year at school (and when did it change to the fact that UK children now start school a year earlier than we did, i.e. at 4 rather than 5? - clearly this is related to the Blair/Brown governments' obsession with targets for pre-school and school-aged children, the teachers have to get them in early to get through it all), then what hope is for when they are teenagers and begin to see carrying a knife as normal. This is clearly where the murders of Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor (who was only 10 when he was murdered by other boys) stem from. This is clearly going to be a problem facing the whole UK, wealthy suburbs are not going to exempt. Even religious schools though they are much lauded by the government seem impotent and parents seem to be unable to communicate a sense of how severe such behaviour is. It is alarming at how normal events which should be seen as frightening and unacceptable seem to have become even in a school that seems well-funded and without other major problems.

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