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.
The Finnish Institute in London