Monthly Archives: August 2011

Behind the London riots: The role of education

Katja Sauvola goes “Behind the Riots: the Role of Education” 
Riots in London shook Britain and the media last week. Since the actual events, we have heard and read numerous analyses of the reasons behind the riots. The Guardian said “the reasons are complex and deep-rooted.” Peter Beaumont wrote on his article that: “Every explanation seems unsatisfactory, designed to conform to an ideology or a theory. I hear social deprivation blamed, yet there are other poor areas of the country that didn’t riot. Others blame atheism and the lack of morality. Yet I have never lived in a community in London where so many of my neighbours go to church. Even the simplest explanation of Conservative ministers that it is simply ‘criminality’ is meaningless.”

The disapproval and allegations of crime and violence have been unanimous. Still, many analysts have come to the same conclusion about why the youngsters decided to act in such an extreme way. Eeva Luhtakallio writes in a leader article in Helsingin Sanomat 17.8. that the main reason is the growth in the income gap.

Britain has become the leading country in Western Europe for economic inequality, and the rioters mostly have the same socio-economic background: they mainly come from unemployed, low-income families, and a lack of education is common. The rioters also have very loose relations with their communities, if any.

The role of schools, teachers and the future of the British education system has also been part of the post-riot discussion. The Coalition last year launched its Higher Education reforms and the government faced major protests when they decided to nearly triple the amount that universities can charge for tuition fees. Some voices have blamed the cutting of the educational maintenance allowance, rising youth unemployment, or even tuition fees, for the rioters’ disaffection with their leaders and their policies.

It is good to remember that those participating in the London riots were not part of a campaign against tuition fees or any government policy. The riots were riots: chaotic, even violent incidents. Riots reflect society, and they can reflect anger and disagreement with the course of current policy, but it is good to distinguish between impulsive riots and protest with an agenda.

There is no simple explanation for the riots. Nevertheless, it is still worth thinking about the state of British education and social policy. In Finland the Ministry of the Interior pointed out that alienation is the biggest security risk to society, and Anneli Taina, who works at the Ministry, said that social exclusion could lead to extreme behaviour, as we have seen in Britain.

Education, employment and social bonds are key factors in preventing social exclusion. Schools can prevent young people becoming disconnected from their friends, communities, the public sphere, and even the democratic process.

If it becomes more difficult to stay on at school or to achieve higher education degrees, where will this inequality lead? If education fosters cultural and moral values and keeps people rooted in daily routines, then the school system should be one where there are equal opportunities to access education. It is good to remember that schools and education can generate social capital for us all.

Katja Sauvola
The Finnish Institute in London

Reasons for rioting

Programme Director Jussi Nissilä comments the developments in the UK.
Who would have thought that a protest against the police after a young man’s death last weekend would turn into a full-scale anarchy all over the UK? Even after having witnessed the demonstrations by the students against the rising tuition fees and the demonstration and the aftermath anarchy against the government’s spending cuts,  I didn’t think this would be possible. After all, the issue seemed so geographically focused and so apolitical that my first reaction was that it would remain very local to Tottenham.
Travelling back home from the office and seeing black smoke, a closed street and a handful of police cars on the high street of my home neighbourhood proved me wrong. Running the rest of my way home (not because of the riots, but because it was raining!) I then watched the news and how the protest had sparked a full-scale riot with violence, looting and arson. How did it escalate into something this far-reaching and serious? There didn’t seem to be a reason, a motivation that would touch so many people. Most of the ordinary people, poor or not, would want nothing to do with these criminals. So what is the reason for the riots? And most importantly, what can we do to prevent it from happening in the future?
The first observation of the backgrounds of the rioters has been that they are mostly teenagers. With little hopes of a better future and few places to spend their time except on the streets, the youth of the Britain’s lower social classes are indeed troubled. The police and the politicians have asked parents to call their kids off the streets, and there seems to be a common call for some parental discipline to keep the youngsters out of the streets and out of trouble.
Columnist and blogger Laurie Penny comments in her blog that parenting or youth centres can only bring so much results: “ [The riots] are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all.”
It is apparent that in the UK there is a group of young people, who are socially excluded to the extent that their only means of empowerment is rioting. My observation is that people in this country are constantly divided into “winners” and “losers”. Within the education system this means people with talent and wealthy parents, and those who lack either of the two. In this way the the UK shows characteristics from both meritocracy and class society. However the motivation for the division of people seems irrelevant at this moment, when the rioters are still on the streets. The real question is how can there be some way of empowerment when the current government is cutting public services, social security, jobs and altogether making the situation only worse for the less fortunate. 
Jussi Nissilä
The Finnish Institute in London
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