August 10th, 2011
10:32 PM ET

Want an explanation for the UK riots? Go back to school

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We were about to put the “Great” back into Britain. Just as the Swinging Sixties and Cool Britannia defined the youth of previous generations, the twin beacons of the Royal Wedding and the London Olympics were expected to give today’s young ‘uns something to shout about. Well, they’re shouting alright. And looting. And trashing. And burning.

Clearly, those partaking represent a tiny minority. But they’re making the majority of headlines out of Fleet Street this week.

It’s difficult to know how to categorize current events on the streets of England. An outburst against authority? Partially – though the link to a Tottenham police shooting is increasingly tenuous. A cry for help? If so – it’s ever less likely to fall on sympathetic ears. Or just the latest in a series of multi-motivated underclass uprisings? Well, that depends on how you define an underclass.

One thing this isn’t is a standard working class revolt.

Britain’s less wealthy have a proud history of fighting for their basic rights and needs with strong tactics and strong messages. This week’s rioters have ruinous tactics and no discernible message. If it’s jobs they’re after, I’d argue that arson convictions are unlikely to enhance their résumés.

There’s probably no simple explanation for what’s happening. But it’s clear that David Cameron hasn’t yet fixed what he liked to call “broken Britain” when he wasn’t in charge. Previous Conservative PM John Major (with a similar fondness for “b”-based alliteration) talked about going “back to basics”. Cameron should possibly do likewise. There’s evidence that the unsavory developments of recent nights owe as much to the classroom as they do to class.

American journalist Kai Ryssdal told Piers Morgan Monday that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen in his home country. And I think I know why. It’s probably down to boredom.

I’m a product of both the U.S. and UK mainstream school systems. Each has its faults. The former arguably spreads academic activity too thinly. But the latter does something potentially more dangerous. It all too often closes its doors at mid-afternoon, Monday to Friday. Extra-curricular activities are out the window. Working parents aren’t available to find kids alternative entertainment, and they’re left to their own devices. Tedium sets in and bad behavior regularly follows.

In the U.S., most kids are afforded the chance to join all manner of clubs and sports teams. Staying behind after school isn’t abnormal or uncool, because peer pressure works in that direction. Hours of evening and weekend activity keep school students physically active and mentally stimulated. Granted, there are schools that fail and pupils that fail – just like anywhere. But show me a U.S. city where most teenagers habitually roam the streets for want of viable alternatives, and I’d be mightily surprised.

Let me turn things around for a second. If this week’s riots aren’t down to boredom, and the gangs on the streets genuinely do care about jobs and the economy – there’s another issue at play. British higher education.

Various administrations have conspired to teach all UK schoolchildren that they’re entitled to a place at university. A nice idea in theory; unworkable in practice. It’s not about who’s academically gifted. It’s about who’s prepared to bear the financial burden.

This merely creates a different kind of underclass. Those who don’t stay in education are now a minority. And those who do often can’t find a job to fit their new credentials. The result? Thousands of undergraduates leave higher education and take up posts that could have been filled by high school leavers. Despite soaring studying fees, the pointless cycle continues. Little wonder there are lots of unhappy young people about.

This notion of social advantage – assumed or actual – is arguably pretty close to home for David Cameron. In Britain, disdain for privilege is a bigger issue than disdain for authority. People born into money are toffs. People who come into money have betrayed their backgrounds.

Nowhere is this ill feeling more evident than in education. Class and the classroom are in fact intertwined. And the two men currently asking Britain to tighten its communal belt – Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne – just so happen to be private school and Oxbridge alumni. Neither man should apologize for his schooling. But both should realize that if “broken Britain” is ever going to be fixed, a closer examination of the wider education system is probably a very good place to start.

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Filed under: General • Personal musings
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Mário Silva

    I think it is perceived and what are the main victims of the economic and social crisis which we live.
    Young people know very well that the main duty of the adults is to create sustainability and prevent the earth after having met the first duty of procreation.
    So they are trying to solve the problem because the older people are out of problems and out of the Crisis situation.It's a natural reaction in right timing.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:13 am | Reply
  2. Reader

    Higher Education is a mess, including in the US. They are all about making money. That's why a course takes 4 months, when it can be taught in 2 weeks. Books are 200 pages and cost $200, when they could easily be a few pages and still cover everything needed. No but they have to justify the cost, thus the endless BS in the higher education system. Why is the US government even funding higher education directly and indirectly, through grants, loans and etc. ... US should embrace for the same. This country is going down the drain, and it's going to go very fast.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:44 am | Reply
  3. Reader in UK

    Like Mr Nicolson I am a product of the US and UK education systems. Unlike him, I don't see the distinction he makes between the apparently rich provision of after school clubs in the US and the lack of the same in the UK. Talk to someone who is now working in education in California or Massachusetts (these are the two areas where I still have some links) and you will hear stories of cuts in the arts and other extra curricular programmes all round. According to one US colleague, in California after school music is almost non-existant in many areas, for example. On the other hand, I now work in a (good) UK school where, despite cuts in budgets, we still have music, drama, dance, sports, science and engineering clubs, and much more. There is never a day when there isn't something going on here until well after 6 pm. I'm a Head now (equivalent of a US Principal) and if I attended every after school event I'd be in school until after 10 pm on about 75% of school days. Add to that opportunities for sports trips, language exchanges, expeditions abroad, ski trips, and much more, and I simply don't see the pattern of poverty of opportunity to which Mr Nicolson refers. Perhaps it is, as always, more a case of "good schools" versus "not so good" ones? That is universal, whatever the country.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Reply
  4. aleanu


    August 11, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Reply
  5. Evolved Into Higher Form

    Shoplifters and purse snatchers have evolved into a higher form, it is the flash mob. High-tech goodies was stolen while the London police were frozen in shock. In the jungle the hyena`s suddenly arise to steal the food from the unsuspecting lion.

    August 11, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  6. Mark Twain

    I made my own entertainment when I was young (im 28). It involved using my brain.

    August 11, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Reply
  7. nl20051405

    Go to school and expect what the teachers will bring to the classrooms for the teenagers.

    August 18, 2011 at 6:23 am | Reply
  8. nl20051405

    Do the young people still expect anything from their teachers and the classrooms in the campus?

    August 18, 2011 at 6:24 am | Reply

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