Adrian Elliott's picture
Both Boris Johnston and the recent report by the Riots Communities and Victims Panel have placed a large measure of blame for last year’s riots on poor schooling. But how far is this a fair or accurate analysis of the causes of the worst civil disturbances for decades.

First, the emphasis on schools seems to have led to other possible factors –social,cultural and economic - to being downplayed or ignored altogether. Crucial as education is, it is easy to forget that children spend considerably less than half the time they are awake between the ages of 5 and 16 in school.

A significant proportion of those arrested had been excluded from school – at least a third permanently. This, many would argue ,merely confirms the failure of the schools concerned. But politician views have not always been consistent in this area. As Estelle Morris pointed out in the Guardian this week
‘Over the years, schools with high levels of exclusions have, in turn, been criticised for abandoning pupils and praised for being tough on discipline... national policy has never been sure whether success would be more or fewer exclusions'

Some of those arrested in the riots may well have been excluded from good schools which had succeeded with many children from backgrounds and with problems just as challenging as those they may have been forced to exclude and who later took part in the riots.

Moreover, how many of those who took part were long-term absentees from school? As with exclusion, this has often been seen recently as the fault of the school. This wasn’t always the case in the past or in many countries today where responsibility for attendance is placed entirely on parents.

And what about the schools in those places where riots did not take place? If we are to condemn the schools in cities where people rioted should we not logically be looking at why schools in Sheffield, Bradford,Hull,Leeds,Newcastle, Southampton and other cities stopped their pupils taking part?

Above all. shouldn’t we be asking why there were entire countries of the UK – Scotland and Wales - which were unaffected? We might note that neither Scotland or Wales have free schools, academies or grammar schools and have a lower proportion of children in fee-paying schools than England.

The reality is that over recent years London,where most of the disturbances took place has had , as Henry Stewart pointed out in his most recent piece on here, many of the most improved and effective inner city schools in the country.

Estelle Morris went on to refer to ‘a national accountability system that gives too schools little recognition of the progress they often do make with children with poor behaviour’ Blaming schools for outbursts of mob violence which historically have recurred every twenty years or so over recent centuries is glib and ill-informed.

There are many other issues which need to be considered from support for families in crisis through youth unemployment to the shocking example given to the young in recent years by the most powerful in politics, business and the media.
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Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 31/03/2012 - 10:59

Blaming schools for the riots is a convenient way of getting everyone else off the hook and taps into the prevalent mood of attacking English education. Perhaps the daftest suggestion is that schools should be fined if pupils didn't reach the literacy level expected of their age group. This will really encourage schools to accept pupils who are not likely to reach this level. It would also punish all the children in the school for the failure of a few by taking money away from them.


It doesn't help that the definition of lack of literacy is not fixed and depends on who is using the term. The threshold for functional literacy is Level One (National Curriculum Level 4 - the level expected of an 11 year old) but according to some sections of the media and Mr Gove in his evidence to the Education Select Committee it is Level Two (GCSE C).

So if schools are supposed to be fined, then someone had better decide what illiteracy is, and they'd also better get their own sums right.


Ben Taylor's picture
Sat, 31/03/2012 - 23:54

I can agree with you that trying to pin these riots on schools in general is ridiculous. One of the high up police leaders in Manchester said publically for example that the local professional criminals had taken the excuse to turn out en mass, partly in an act of revenge against GMP.

It made me decide not to touch teaching in the state when I realised I had to be all things to all people. I had a friend who had left a professional manufacturing job, got his PGCE and went to a school in a deprived East Lancs mill town. Generally the place is OK but he was in the school that took the hardest cases. The teachers had to bring in old clothes to dress pupils in winter. Then a parent was arrested and convicted for imprisoning and abusing his daughters. He left and went to a good enough private school run by his brother in law.

We don't expect police, doctors and nurses and so on to do everything. I am pondering on what Toby Young said in one of his articles when he said the main effort of a school is to teach children. Why are we expecting teachers to do it all? Even when someone like Katherine Birbalsingh comes out and says she wants to do that a Labour local council will not support her. We can't compare Finland to our example when we think about our contrasting histories of colonisation, immigration and industrialisation it is obvious.

We don't expect the judicial system, social services, the police, the NHS to educate children in addition to their prime duties. But even when teachers offer to do that they are rejected by their own profession. Perhaps this is quite correct and teachers need to delimit properly their responsbility and enmesh their relationships in contract and statute like all the other clever professions. But they can't stop those teachers and schools who want to consent to more than the limits and take on more liability.

I suffered at school myself due to pastoral care that wasn't ideal. But I think on balance my family should have picked up on some things that happened to me, I don't think the teachers had capacity to do more. I wish they had had though and not just for me.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 01/04/2012 - 07:34

Ben - although you agree that schools cannot be held responsible for all the ills of society, you seem to be saying that teachers should abandon state education and join the private sector unless, of course, they open a free school.

There is a difference between being held responsible for society's problems and dealing with those problems to the best of one's ability. Teachers don't teach in a vacuum and they are often the first to notice when there are problems - that's why schools are supposed to have a laid-down procedure about how to report suspected neglect/abuse to a designated member of staff.

You might be surprised to learn that most teachers take the welfare of their pupils very seriously. Their prime responsibility is to teach children but a child's ability to learn will be affected by their background. I'm not just talking about the stereotypical disadvantaged child, described as "feral", or even those from so-called advantaged backgrounds whose parents are nevertheless selfish and neglectuful. There is a large number of children whose families face difficulties which are not of their making: poverty, lack of work, financial problems and illness, for example. Children can't just put these problems to the back of their minds when they enter school - some are worried, some are grieving, some are carers. Sensitive teachers are aware of this.

Teachers need support in their difficult job, not blame when there are problems especially when these take place outside schools and are caused in many cases by people who left school many years before. Neither do they expect to be told that the only way to do their job better is to open a free school. Nor do they appreciate being given advice by someone who decided not to join the state sector because it could be tough.

Yes, it is tough, and that's why thousands of teachers stick at it because they hope they will make a difference to people's lives. In England, though, this receives brickbats and criticism.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Mon, 02/04/2012 - 13:29

Interesting comments in R4 programme this morning about modern France. The narrator pointed out that,despite its widespread poverty, Marseille had not been touched by the riots of 2005 .

When asked for the cause of this a commentator said that community relations had been stronger there than in many other large cities. Education never featured in the discussion at all even though schools were mentioned at the time in France as being a factor in cities where rioting did take place.

I think its right that educational factors should be considered after such serious events. What concerns me is that national politicians and analysts tend to only look at the negative effects of what schools do.

Compare sport where a poor performance by any England team is invariably followed by some columnist or other decrying the state of sport in English schools. Whereas when we do well,as at the Beijing Olympics, you will look in vain for comments praising schools .

Rita Moore's picture
Mon, 02/04/2012 - 19:05

I live in Croydon, which was saw severely hit by the riots. I am not going to lay the blame for the riots on schools but they do have to take some responsibility.

What's happening to a significant proportion of the school population in the borough is outrageous, but along as there seems to be 'improvements' in results, nobody cares.

That's until 'da yout dem start fi kick off'

Leonard James's picture
Mon, 02/04/2012 - 20:10

Pray tell us what is happening?

Rita Moore's picture
Mon, 02/04/2012 - 21:17

It would be a long post.

Leonard James's picture
Tue, 03/04/2012 - 07:17

And it is one you ought to consider writing given the outrageous happenings you have mentioned.

Rita Moore's picture
Tue, 03/04/2012 - 18:15

Perhaps the LSN should contact governors of Bishopford school, and track down the governors of Tamworth Manor (now closed), and ask them to write an article about community education in Merton so that the public will get an idea about what is going on educationally in south london:

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 04/04/2012 - 13:43

Rita – could you be more specific? You’ve mentioned Tamworth Manor High School which closed after an acrimonious court case in 2006 before re-opening as the Harris Academy Merton. You’ve linked to Bishopsford’s website which says the governors rejected the Harris chain as a potential sponsor and recommend AET. But it’s unclear from your post what your point is.

Bishopsford’s governors seem to be impressed with AET as a potential sponsor:

“The Academies Enterprise Trust [AET] considered by Governors to be an alternate viable sponsor, has a track record of success, sponsors academies in London, and was voted unanimously by Governors as their preferred sponsor following their presentation on 28 February 2012.”

While it’s true that AET - or London Academies Enterprise Trust (LAET) to be more accurate – sponsors London academies, there are only three: two opened in September 2010 and the third in September 2011. Only three of AET’s fourteen secondary academies outside London have been open since September 2008. One opened in 2009, seven in September 2011 and three in January 2012. It is too early to judge whether the ten which opened in 2011/12 have a “track record of success”. At one of the 2008 academies, Maltings, the number reaching the GCSE benchmark of 5+ A*-C (or equivalent) in Maths and English fell from 50% in 2010 to 42% in 2011; at a second, New Rickstones, the number reaching the benchmark remained static at 40%.

AET expects to have 61 academies by September 2012. This is very rapid expansion from only five schools in September 2010.

Is this what worried you - that a potential sponsoring chain is expanding too quickly and it's too early to validate AET's claim of "a track record of success"? Or does your concern lie with Harris? Or something else?

Rita Moore's picture
Thu, 05/04/2012 - 15:57

The point is that it seems that some academies and schools see themselves as being more important than their students.

Let say an academy sponsor takes over a 'failing' school and the removes SEN support, enforces vocational courses on all students, drastically reduces the number of students in subsequent cohorts, introduces a banding policy, removes the nearest to admissions (and siblings) for one based on random lottery and zones, removes dual registered students, encourages the parents of challenging to removes their children or else, enforces a discipline policy to severly punish the most trivial behaviour, 'ensures' student's controlled assessments are to the highest standard regardless of their ability...

What do think would happen to the other schools in the area, given that they would originally have had the same student intake profile and outcomes?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 05/04/2012 - 17:09

Is anybody else looking at the systems which are relentlessly destroying the schools which know how to pick up and sort out the kids who are likely to riot?


Leonard James's picture
Fri, 06/04/2012 - 18:13

I've been comparing the levels of progress in English between areas of London that did/didn't experience riots with some interesting results.


Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 07/04/2012 - 07:32

Thanks, Leonard. I whole-heartedly endorse your recommendation:

"It would also be helpful if the educational hierarchy could agree on a single definition and method of recording illiteracy levels so that teachers, researchers and politicians are actually about the same thing"

Of course, it's not in the government's interest to make the definition of functional literacy given in the House of Commons document, "Skills for Life" (ie anyone who passes the threshold of Level 1 - GCSE grade G equivalent - is functionally literate) because it would have to admit that 94% of school leavers achieve this (again, this figure was in "Skills for Life" which set a target of 95% adult literacy by 2020. Schools, of course, can't do much to raise the literacy levels of adults - some of whom would have left school decades ago - but, as "Skills for Life" found, schools are on target to ensure that school leavers reach this standard.

That's probably something that neither the Government nor Boris want to acknowledge - far better to keep knocking schools.

eJD8owE1's picture
Tue, 10/04/2012 - 08:15

Doesn't a Kruskall-Wallace test assume that the shape of the distributions in the samples are the same, and test for significant differences in the median? It's better than using a parametric test, because there's no reason to believe that the distribution of school performance in an area is normal, but assuming that different areas have similar distributions of school achievement doesn't seem a great deal better, or at least would be worth checking. Based on the Tukey plots you provide, the distributions certainly appear different. The rioting areas have larger upper and similar sized lower quartiles to the non-rioting, with much smaller central quartiles: that implies a "peakier" distribution with longer tails.

Leonard James's picture
Tue, 10/04/2012 - 15:47

I'm by no means an expert on this but I'll try and justify my methods as best I can.

Being as the school data is expressed as a percentage I don't think parametric tests are suitable - I think we are in agreement here.

As for the suitability of using Kruskall-Wallace in my work I would ask how identical the shape of distribution has to be? If we are going to reject Kruskall-Wallace on the basis of small differences (as opposed to data that is skewed to the left or right) then I don't think it would be suitable for anything as completely identical patterns of distribution will only occur rarely and/or with huge data sets.

I've never encountered a source that provides an authoritative answer to this and I'd be happy to read it should someone recommend something.

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