Monday, December 15, 2008

Danger! Children!

Here's that whingeing post I alluded to ... remember, you get what you ask for ...

The news broke yesterday (Saturday) that the UK government's recently-released statistics on knife crime were somewhat inaccurate. The head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar, said that officials pleaded with No 10 not to release 'unchecked' and 'selective' figures. However, the UKSA were allegedly over-ruled by ministers eager to show that a crackdown on knife crime in England was working.

I have some sympathy with the ministers' intentions here if not their rather naive methods* (Did they really think they wouldn't be found out?). The public do need reassurance. The community needs to know that the world is not as dangerous as the media paints it to be. Hell, compared to 100 years ago, it's a paradise. I spend my working days doing just that; trying to reassure people by balancing fact against press speculation and Daily Mail-style scaremongering, while trying to design innovative ways to make their lives better. A friend of mine, Warwick Cairns, released an excellent book earlier this year called How to live dangerously in which he goes back to the unedited, unspun, honest-to-goodness statistics that underlie crime and the dangers that face us in modern life. As you may expect, he found that the world isn't nearly as nasty a place as public opinion thinks it is. He also found that we are hugely selective in our perception of risk. We won't walk past a gang of kids on a street corner but we will happily drive a car in the rain even though the chances of us dying in that car (statistically) are hundreds of thousands of times more likely than of us getting stabbed. You might also be interested to learn that you'd have to lock your kids out of the house every day for 186,000 years before they stand an evens chance of being abducted (and even then you'd get them back within 24 hours). And if you really want to die in a plane crash, you'll need to take a flight a day for the next 26,000 years.

But putting our 'appetite for risk' to one side, I'm keen to return to the subject of knife crime and, in particular, what appears to be a media-led campaign to demonise young people. Want to see how bad things are getting? Have a look at this recent campaign ad from children's charity Barnardos. It's not for the squeamish.

Now, don't get me wrong - there are some right little bastards out there who to be taken off the streets pronto. But because I am a police officer and because I do work in the field of community safety, I meet young people all the time and they're not as bad as they're painted. Yes, some are incrediby aggressive, anti-social and even dangerous. Many more are disenfranchised, bored, surrounded by poverty, have appalling parents and see no positive future in their lives. The vast majority are just normal kids and they act like kids do; they are brash, cocky, ever-challenging of authority and incredibly noisy. In fact, noise seems to be the Number One complaint a lot of the time, whether it's car stereos or kicking balls against a wall or just gathering in large groups.

So who complains the most about kids? Old people? Depends what you mean by old. My late Grandfather was still playing cricket in his 80s, whereas I know 40 year olds who act like octogenarians. In fact, most compaints about kids come from people aged 25-40. Extraordinary, eh? Many of them were kids themselves not so long ago and yet they are the least tolerant. I can only assume it's because the 25-40 demographic are those who don't yet have the benefit of the so-called 'grey pound' and cannot afford that big house set away from the road in a nice village somewhere. They are putting in long hours at work in order to keep their mortgage going and are therefore understandably a bit tired and kranky of an evening. The 25-40 year olds are also the people who have to commute to work every day and therefore read daily newspapers. A 'good' newspaper story these days has to contain at least one celebrity faux pas or government cock-up. If they're not available, a good scare story will do. On Friday, the tabloids reported that a woman had died from drinking water. It was only when you got into the meat of the story that you realised that this was an obese woman who'd drunk over four litres in less than an hour. Not exactly common circumstances. But who cares? Let's scare the public off drinking water. Oh, and on the radio yesterday, the government's 'naughty' attempt to make us all feel safer about knife crime was deemed more newsworthy than four Royal Marines being killed in Afghanistan. It's all very, very wrong.

If the media is to be believed, every young person under the age of 25 is a knife-wielding Hoodie-wearing sociopath. What a pile of absolute arse. There are far too many kids carrying knives to be sure. But it's not every kid. The knife-carriers are very few and far between and tend to be most common in high crime areas (it's not rocket science is it?). Most of those who do carry them do so for protection because, guess what? Youths are by far the most common victims of assaults and crime in general. 'High crime area' doesn't mean that youths are only commiting the crimes - they're suffering them too.

So what's the answer? Personally (and I can only write about this personally), I think that the answer is very simple. Unfortunately, it's also almost impossible to implement.

The first step would be to get kids off the street and into safe, secure, lawful activities. Whenever I ask kids what they want, or why they hang around in groups, the answers I get are nearly always the same: 'We've got nowhere else to go', 'We want a meeting place', 'We want some facilities'. When I was a younger chap I had, at my disposal, youth clubs, after schools projects, the Scouts, Army Cadets, Sea Cadets, Boys Brigade, St John's Ambulance, Snooker clubs, Judo clubs, various collecting and hobby societies ... the list was endless. Things are harder these days. I go into some of the most deprived London Boroughs and I find a lack of money and premises and, sadly, goodwill. The NIMBYs don't want youth clubs as they encourage groups of kids to come into the area and 'attract paedophiles'(look at the current storyline in Eastenders) . So who would want to run one and get tongues wagging about their 'interest in kids'? That's assuming you have the energy to run a youth club after putting in a 10-12 hour day at work (we do work the longest hours in Europe). And who wants to take kids camping and rock climbing when a scratch on Jimmy or Jolene's knee may result in a legal claim from irate parents? To top it all, health and safety regulations have stripped some of the fun from such activities and pushed insurance premiums through the roof. Consequently, kids have nowhere safe to go and nothing worthwhile to do. And these are kids who have grown up in an age of TV, radio, computers, the internet, portable music ... they have been subject to much more stimulus as kids than we ever were. They get bored quicker. They need more outlets for their energy, just at a time in British history when those outlets are fewest. Incidentally, where these cubs do flourish, they are filled to capacity and kids like them so much that they behave better - banning them from the premises is seen as a punishment.

The second thing is education. Or, to be precise, that everyone should be allowed the chance of a good education. Back in September, we learned the scary fact that around 220,000 11-year-olds are still failing to master at least one of the three basic subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic. The biggest problem is with writing where only 67% of youngsters achieved the required grade – a figure which has remained static for the past three years. How can this be true? Kids aren't getting more stupid surely? Of course not. If anything, they have access to more information and knowledge than anyone in history. They just don't what to do with it or they simply have no interest. We know from work by agencies like the KIPP Academies in the USA that kids will excel - despite their circumstances - if they are inspired by good teachers and teachers are given the time (and realistic class sizes) to work with their pupils. The kids also have to work hard of course. If we invested properly in our schools, paid our teachers what they're worth, and had enough of them that class sizes are sensible we'd be giving our kids a fairer chance. We also need to get away from this whole 'league tables' for schools rubbish. All that matters is that kids get an education, not whether a school has passed some arbitrary charter mark set by some government minister who knows as much about teaching as my pet cat.

Kids are learning less and exams are getting easier, despite protestations from the government to the contrary (any study of past exam papers compared to today's papers easily proves this). I have a children's book here on my desk called The Children's Book of Games, Puzzles and Pastimes published around 1952. I blogged about it here where I pointed out that, judging by the illustrations, it was aimed at kids aged between 10-15. And here are some of the quiz questions they were set:

(1) In what works do the following characters occur? (i) Man Friday (ii) Sam Weller (iii) The March Hare (iv) Jeanie Deans (v) Caliban (vi) Amyas Leigh, and (vii) Worldly Wiseman.

(2) Give the plural of the following: phalanx, sphinx, lemma, phenomenon, axis.

(3) If a cow and a goat could eat all the grass on a field in 45 days, and a cow and a goose could eat all the grass of the same field in 60 days, and the goat and the goose could eat the grass in 90 days, how long would it take the goat, cow and goose to eat the grass when turned into it all together?

I realise that some will say that kids today have other stuff to learn and that the eating habits of farm animals and identifying characters from English literature may not be relevant. But these kinds of questions are still valid even in today's society. They exercise the brain. They provoke analytical skills. They encourage problem solving. Maths skills are still useful, despite calculators and computers, and communication skills - speaking, writing, spelling, grammar - have never been more important. They should be at the forefront of a child's skill set. Sadly, my three kids all struggled to answer any of the quizzes in the book (as did some adults I showed it to) ... and these are all sensible, studious, smart 21st century kids in their 20s who have good GCSE and A Level grades. Kids in 1952 were no smarter than my kids but schools had the opportunity to teach them well. My kids were coached to pass their exams rather than given an all round education. My eldest, for example, has an A Level in Art. She is quite the expert on the St Ives School of Painting and the Impressionists as those were the topics she was asked to research for the exam. Outside of those topics, she knows next to nothing; she wouldn't know a Dali from a Delacroix. Children deserve a proper education. The focus must be on them, not the school's performance.

Lastly, there is the thorny matter of discipline and this is the toughest one to crack. Kids need to be taught right from wrong, appropriate behaviour from inappropriate. They need boundaries. My generation was taught this, so were our parents and grandparents. And the majority of us got the hang of it. And, despite the bleatings of the 'thrash your kids' brigade, it wasn't always about corporal punishment - I'm not a great believer in smacking and nor were my parents. But kids do need to be punished when they do wrong. Favourite in my house was the withdrawal of priviliges etc. and these sanctions usually worked. However, things changed for parents during the 80s and 90s, when well-meaning but short-sighted do-gooders gave kids too much power. What probably started as a genuine attempt to rescue abused and beaten kids from their miserable lives became a 'get out of jail free card' for bad behaviour. When kids are in a position to say 'no' to your every attempt to punish them and all you have left is a smack, what do you do? Especially when the very same child tells you that if you do smack them, they'll report you to Childline or the NSPCC.

The changes in traditional family structures haven't helped either of course. We're never going to return to the 'Mum at home while Dad goes out and earns the money' days so it's no use going on about it. Society has moved on. Parenting, in so many cases, has yet to catch up. Just before she died in 2006 I can remember my Gran saying that there was something wrong with a society 'where they need TV programs to tell you how to cook, how to tidy up your house and how to bring up your children'. She was right. These parenting skills should be inherent. But you learn them from your parents and close family, so if you grew up as a latch-key kid with Mum and Dad (if you're lucky enough to have both) not coming in from work until late evening, where do you get it from? TV has taken on that role.

Talking of roles, my final concern is with role models and, once again, I have to curse the media. In my day, we had lots of positive role models in our sports stars, film stars, teachers, scientists, even - dare I say it - politicians. Yes, they got up to the same shenanigens that they get up to now but we didn't always hear about it did we? As a kid growing up in the 70s, we had three TV channels (that broadcast nothing for 12 hours a day), no mobile phones, no internet, four radio stations. If anything significant happened you would never know unless you watched the evening news or read the following day's newspaper. News is instant now and it's everywhere. And, bizarrely, we all know more about what's going on in remote parts of the world than we do about what's happening where we live. Consequently, we live in an age where celebs can't buy a pair of pants without getting a double-page spread in Heat. And the positive role-models - the hardworking, inspiring sports stars and TV stars etc. - are swamped by stories about the drink and drug raddled rockers, the WAGS and sex-scandal football stars, the sleazy politicians, the no knickers soap stars and the ghastly army of no-talent so-called 'reality stars'. Who are, of course, all immensely rich and enjoy enviable life styles. What chance do our kids have when the life they aspire to centres solely on money and celebrity? As I've written about before, studies have revealed that children as young as infants, when asked what they want to be when they grow up say things like 'Rich' and 'Famous'. They have no desire for a profession or skill that would get them to that exalted position. By why should they? They can just go on Big Brother and do something outrageous. Money in the bank. Meanwhile their parents continue to buy magazines like OK and Heat that simply reinforce the message - be slim, be rich, be famous. Nothing else is worth striving for.

But for the kids growing up on dysfunctional concrete housing estates with drug-dependent parents, alcoholic reatives and no choice but to join a gang as it's safer than not joining a gang ... what chance do they have? None, unless people offer them a way out. They need to have the will to take that way out, of course, and many are so entrenched in their lifestyle that they never will. But I meet hundreds of kids who are looking for that life-line which so often, heartbreakingly, isn't there. Instead, there are people writing comments on newspaper websites about hunting them down and killing them.

Yes, I'm an idealist. But, then again, I actually do meet these kids instead of just reading about their worst excesses in the papers. I must also make it clear that my views are just that - my views - and not those necessarily my employers. But I honestly believe that if kids are given support, love, opportunities, guidance, discipline and good role models, they will be better kids and much more able to function within society. With every negative newspaper report or salacious TV show about 'Dangerous Britain' we're pushing those kids further and further away from us. And these people are our future, let's not forget that. They are the Britain that we leave behind when we die.

Right, whinge over (you can maybe see why I removed this post the first time). I will just leave you with a press clipping from the New York Times from 9th June 1908. You may think that anti-social behaviour is an entirely 21st century problem, but it isn't. If you read enough, you'll know that it's been a fairly constant aspect of society for the past 1000 years; it just so happens that a couple of world wars put a blip in the statistics. The only difference I can see between this age and previous ages is that we no longer seem to want to put the work in to invest in our kids. We don't have the time, the schools don't have the money and the media are only interested in sensationalism. It makes me very sad.

'Parks, as we all know, are supposed to be places of recreation for everybody, but in Mount Morris Park there is recreation for very few, especially in the evening, and there are those are the few who are capable of resenting an insult. It is different with young and defenseless girls; they cannot go out into Mount Morris Park without being insulted by a gang of rowdies and ruffians. This is an outrage and ought to be stopped. The one way to stop is to remove the cause - that is, to remove the ruffians. On the outside of the park there are about four policemen but they never come inside except to chase a few five year old children off the grass. Now if these policemen did their duty and patroled the inside of the park instead of the outside, I think Mount Morris Park would once more be what it was intended to be.' - A Lover of Justice.

*Sadly, I'm also painfully aware that the manipulation of stats is as much about the government trying to make itself look effective as it is about public reassurance.

Illustration by J J McCollough


Stuart Peel said...

Completely agree. I think the worrying thing for me is that the traditional sources of a ´good example´ i.e. the media and government seem as lost as everyone else, and as obsessed with the fame game. You´ve just listed many of the reasons that I left the country.

Things aren´t perfect over here either, but they are much much better. And I can´t help thinking that the very strong family system they have here has a lot to do with it. And they also have a strong sense of community and civic responsibility that the British seem to have lost somewhere in the 80´s.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Glad you reinstated this post, Stevyn - it's not a whinge, it's an inspiration and a positive challenge.

As you say, the answer is 'almost impossible to implement', but every effort counts.

When we are in schools doing our 'Stick your Neck out and Write' creative days, we are constantly impressed with the enthusiasm and manners of the kids, and their eagerness to learn and be creative.

(Interestingly re the media; we recently held a 'Nex Factor' day of writing songs and reviews for giraffe character contestants. Every child in the school, (primary), said they watched the X Factor! From many conversations I hear that folks find it encouraging to see people on the programme working hard for their dreams and not giving up).

It's good to have role models from all walks of life who push through the sense of pointlessness and negativity that is around these days. 'Stick your Neck out for your Dreams!'

chris hale said...

It feels better when you let it all out, doesn't it?

Your view that providing safe, lawful activities would act as a diversionary measure is absolutely right. Unfortunately, having worked until recently in a bit of north west London and (literally) witnessed gun crime at first hand, it is a sad fact that the kids who most need these activities are the least likely to want to participate. After all, if you are a member of a gang, making money from drug deals and violent crime, you're hardly likely to give it up to do a bit of MC-ing down at the local youth club.

Unfortunately, where America leads, we follow. Gangs here wear bandannas and have their jeans around their ankles because that's what they've seen in the States. And the lack of proper role models other than 'Gangstas' rapping in derogatory terms about their women and the gay community is, as you rightly point out, one of the central issues here. It's going to take an awful lot of Lewis Hamiltons to turn things around. Sadly, I don't think having the first black President of the USA is going to do much either.

I agree with you that most young people are decent and law abiding; hell, I'm one myself! But this doesn't make the news, other than on page 23 of the Helston Packet, where the local Guide troop hands over a cheque to an old people's home. As far as the press, and the rest of the media is concerned, good news is no news.

You can have your blog back now.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Stu, Chris and my visiting Giraffe - Thanks for your comments. I do feel a bit better now. It's just very frustrating when I visit an area, find that there are kids who really want to get out of it and yet they get no parental support, some can't even string a sentence together and there is nothing for them to do. What chance do they have? And this is Britain in 2009 not the Dark Ages. Yes, there will always be those that want the Gangsta life style and all of the criminality and bad behaviour that goes with it. Just because I believe in kids having opportunities doesn't mean that I believe in a softly softly approach to these guys. There is no 'one size fits all' solution; those who want to get out of the life they're in should be given every chance to do so. Those that just want to profit from other's misery and want no place in society should be removed from it and punished accordingly. There's no point offering 5-a-side football leagues to your hardened gang member. But, on the flipside (as I believe they say in the colonies) you shouldn't also assume that every kid in a gang wants to be there.

chris hale said...

Your last comment is absolutely true. The real irony is that some of these gangs provide companionship, support, encouragement and (dare it be said) love; all the things the kids should be getting at home, but aren't.

Once again, great post; glad you re-instated it.

Jeff said...

Midlife crisis — even when it commences early in that 25-40 span — seems to have a somewhat selective way of erasing memory. In my particular case, the torment I inflicted on the parental units (e.g. the Noise now known as Rock & Roll, the hair, the clothing, etc. etc.) was in no way similar to the torment inflicted upon me by Kids These Days, e.g. the Noise now known as Rap, the lack of hair and clothing, etc. etc.).

Here in the States, there are kids who wear bandanas and have their jeans around their ankles because that's what they've seen on TV, and peer pressure fuels it and keeps it alive. Same as it ever was. The baggies and bandanas were once Beatle boots and bellbottoms on long-haired boys playing subversive music. Where Britain led, we followed; our kids were certainly not "brash, cocky, ever-challenging of authority and incredibly noisy" before all those Beatles, Stones, and Sex Pistols invaded our shores.

Now that I'm safely beyond that troubling 25-40 group, I've come to realize that the decadence and devolution of our youth began with Elvis, who was, of course, the Queen Mum in disguise.

Anonymous said...

I've had a few conversations with friends (some ex UK teachers) and read a few rant/opinions on a Brit ex-pat site regarding the difference between UK kids and those here in Canada.

It seems that life is a little old fashioned here and the problems you tell of in the UK are less prevalent here from my own experiences. Kids here seem to be more respectful, and society in general more respectful and concerned about their fellow man.

Canadians are very charitable. It is not possible to find a volunteer spot at a soup kitchen or similar on Christmas Day - apparently one needs to put your name down a year in advance! Chartable deeds even form an important part of one's resume/CV.

I know, a simple example, but the more traditional ideals are still alive and well here and that with a news based media there's less of the sensationalism of the brilliant/nasty UK press.

I don't even pretend to know the answers, but I have noticed the difference between youngsters encountered in London and here in Toronto.

So there you have my 4 cents/2 pence worth!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Chris - It's very true. For some kids, the gang is their family. Albeit a violent and dysfunctional one.

Jeff - I'm safely old enough to have passed the mid-life crisis stage and am trudging my curmudgeonly way towards Grumpy Old Man status. Yes, every generation has youth that rubs the older generation up the wrong way - my Dad thought that the music I listened to was a noise. I actually like a lot of modern music that I should be too old for but, yes, I find a great deal of it to be talentless, boring drivel or a talentless, boring cacophony. I guess it's the just the circle of life; we become our fathers. Sigh.

Rob - Yup. Canada is an admirable and enviable place to live. I'd do it myself if it wasn't such a damned long way to get to work. I'm finding the 35 mies into London a drag already.

jeanie said...

What a fantastic post, Steve. I came via way of a google alert I have for the words "jeanie in paradise" and all three words appeared.

Then I realised you were Debbie's mate, so flicked over - and very glad I did.

Great post.

Bush Babe said...

Hey there Stevyn... as an Aussie and an ex-media navvy, I guess I might come at this from a slightly different angle than you. But basically, at the heart of it all, I agree.

I suspect Aussie "news" outlets and Pommie versions contrast a bit - there is some gutter journalism here but not as much as good old England seems to harbour. But really it's the general sense of 'what is news' and the media in general receiving a broadside here.

The trouble partly, of course, is that people tend to seek out trash. And as noble as most journos would like to think they are when they start out, by the time they are editors, the cold hard reality of "sales figures" wins the day (and the editorial decision). People SAY they want high standards... but yet they BUY rubbish. Sad but true.

What really needs to happen is for it to be somehow made easier for (the good) parents to do their own 'editing'... a couple of really good channels/publications that DO hit the mark (supported by government, otherwise they will die a natural, funds-starved death!). And the expectations we have of parents needs to rise a few notches. And the support for those trying to meet these expectations, needs to rise with it.

I love your discussion here. You have said it so well and it MEANS something from someone with a first-hand view of the streets. I am happily away from the streets raising my kids with as much 'editing' of info and negative influence as possible. Will they cope with the 'real world'... I am hoping the real world will have improved a little by the time I let them back into it!!


Stevyn Colgan said...

Jeanie - Thanks for the comment and fantastic to have you aboard! You're very welcome and among friends here - and it's always nice to see the world perspective from the Southern Hemisphere (Oh, and school concerts always made me shudder too).

BushBabe - Very interesting. I was chatting to a bunch of media people last night and they all seemed to share my opinions too. In fact, it all came down to a general loathing of the gutter press. But as they, and you, so rightly point out, the taboids only print this stuff because people want to read it. And as long as people keep buying celeb magazines, journos will be looking for chinks in the celebrity armour; the drunk photos, the candid upskirts and the Holy Grail of outing some poor gay star or catching someone with someone they shouldn't be. The first time I saw the film Idiocracy I laughed. Now every time I see it, I worry a little more ...

Debby said...

I really think that it comes right down to the family unit. There are parents who are simply not qualified to be parents. In America, those parents sometimes have huge numbers of children. They are dumped into the school system and next thing you know, schools are so busy dealing with problems that they don't have time for the business of education, and the slide down the slippery slope has begun.

Emma-Jane Cross said...

Hi Stevyn – I very much agree with you on this – Its so important that the controversy that has surrounded the release of these figures does not overshadow the serious issue of knifecrime. Beyond the police crackdown which has been credited with reducing knife crime I very much agree that it’s vital that the Government actually takes steps to change young people’s attitudes towards knife possession and violence as this is what is going to make the real difference over time.

If attitudes are to change it is far more logical, and effective, to tackle the causes and problems that have led a young person to the position where they feel they need to carry a knife to gain respect. We need to help young people develop a sense of character and responsibility to stop them from picking up the knife in the first place and carrying out youth on youth violence.

It’s encouraging to hear you talk about the need to “get kids off the street and into safe, secure, lawful activities”. Utilising early intervention processes, Beatbullying’s Gateway programmes are specifically designed and proven to divert the behaviour of young people who are heading towards the tipping point or “Gateway” to criminal and extreme antisocial behaviour.

It’s vital that the government continues to support behaviour modification strategies, conflict resolution, anger management and impulse control particularly in the hardest hit areas. This is best achieved by partnering with the third sector with an emphasis on peer-lead practice and interventions which can stem the tide of a youth culture which is bound up with fear and violence.

These latest figures are encouraging, what we must ensure is that the good foundation is not wasted on complacency. The government needs to continue its work adopting an integrated approach with parents, teachers and the third sector, all helping to put a stop to the violence that many young people in the UK continue to face on a daily basis.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Debby - Very true. But how do we solve it? If it helps, I'm having no more kids!

Emma-Jane - Welcome. An excellent comment; almost a post in its own right. And so encouraging to hear talk of agency cooperation and partnership. Frankly there is no better way forward. Thanks for popping by!