Discipline and purpose

In a response to the mindless criminality that shook London and other cities in England last month, Boris Johnson, the colourful and sometimes outspoken, Conservative Mayor of London, writing in the Daily Telegraph on August 14, proffered the view that, in addition to the necessity for robust policing, a way had to be found to give young people moral guidance and hope.

Even though the Telegraph’s readership is mainly conservative and middle-class, it is an opinion that would have resonated with many people across the UK disgusted by the wanton displays of violence and looting and the shocking breakdown of law and order in the country.

In arguing that the majority of the young rioters came from the “lower socio-economic groups, from the ranks of those who have been left the furthest behind,” Mr Johnson’s thesis is essentially that “the world holds nothing” for these marginalised and dispossessed youths in that “they have no jobs, no hope and no future.” Part of his solution, therefore is that there must be investment to boost London’s apprenticeship programme and to create jobs and opportunities.
But the Eton and Oxford-educated Mr Johnson goes further in professing to understand the anger and alienation: “Yes, these young people have been betrayed; but they have been betrayed by an educational system and family background that failed to give them discipline, or hope, or ambition, or a simple ability to tell right from wrong.”

And while he is taking a swipe at the general drop in standards and values in the UK over which Tony Blair’s New Labour presided, he counterbalances the need for robust policing with a call for teachers to be regarded as “unambiguous figures of authority in the classroom,” for adults collectively to “take charge and recognise” that it is up to them to “give young people hope, boundaries and a moral framework.” In this sense, people have to be “less squeamish about the realities of young people’s needs,” as “the best long-term answer” to the problem.

Interestingly enough, the Telegraph ran a feature, two days after Mr Johnson’s article, on Mossbourne Community Academy, a 1,300-pupil, state-run, inner-city secondary school in run-down Hackney, in North London, quite close to some of the worst rioting. Described as “the school that beat the rioters,” Mossbourne and its headmaster, Sir Michael Wilshaw, a career teacher knighted for his success in helping pupils in tough urban areas fulfil their potential, were hailed for the creation of an environment in which “education blossoms.”

Made up of a great number of students from disadvantaged and immigrant backgrounds, Mossbourne’s ability to keep its students out of the clutches of gangs and its academic success are generally attributed to instilling a respect for authority and rules, allied with high expectations, close tracking of pupil performance and preparation for life after school and the opportunities that lie ahead.

When Mossbourne first opened, Sir Michael’s strict approach to discipline was questioned by parents. They soon came to realise, however, that the school was giving their children a good education and the foundation for going on to university and/or getting a good job; in short, “an upward move out of poverty, in an area where that kind of opportunity is in short supply.” It is a formula worth replicating in other inner city schools around the UK and in schools in our own part of the world beyond the established elite institutions.

Here in Guyana, we spend much time lamenting the decline in our educational standards and the erosion of the country’s social and moral values. Looking at what is happening in the UK, we should perhaps agree with Mr Johnson’s reasoning and Sir Michael’s approach. In this regard, one of the things we need to do is to go back to basics and re-instil a sense of discipline and purpose in our youths.

Teachers, once respected members of the community, need to be accorded that respect again. Parents and pupils cannot be allowed to resent authority and take the law into their own hands. When children arrive at the school gates, they must be aware that they are entering an environment where discipline and expectations of excellence coexist. Teachers must be adequately trained, equipped and rewarded to work with their students towards higher standards of behaviour and performance. Parents, equally, must be encouraged to support this ethos. And if they themselves need help to do so, then this should be forthcoming in the form of counselling, coaching and even tuition if necessary.

But the moral and educational framework will be ultimately meaningless if the state cannot provide a framework for socio-economic advancement. Most importantly, our young people must be able to look forward to realistic opportunities to match their needs and expectations, so that goals can be set and realised.

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