Monday, August 27, 2007

'If I want something, do I have to be bad?'

Rhys Jones' father is right - there should be no 'wrong place' or 'wrong time' where an eleven year old can be shot and murdered.

It's natural, that a whole load of people have reacted to recent murders of young people with their own pre-existing prejudices, and looked for someone or something to blame. These range from Sir Simon Jenkins on the failure of the government to bring in more elected mayors (because, as we know, in America they elect their mayors and there is no problem with young people shooting each other), to the right-wing pundits explaining how it is all the fault of lone parents who need to have their benefits taken away so that they can, erm, go to work and spend less time with their children as they are growing up.

Reducing the chance that other young people will be victims of violent crime will be a matter of doing lots of little things, and anyone who claims to have one single big magic solution isn't worth listening to. Over the past few weeks and months, I've heard people from different parts of the UK who live in areas where they are high levels of crime talk about what they think needs to be done. Their ideas don't fit into a pre-existing narrative about how everything is the fault of politically correct liberals from the 1960's or Maggie Thatcher, but I thought they might be even more interesting for exactly that reason. I've just picked out three which were mentioned widely.

I don't know much about education systems in other countries, in France children don't start primary schooling until the age of six, but by the age of nine, levels of attainment are higher than in the UK, because the nursery schools focus on teaching social skills, self-awareness and taking part in group activities, which means that when children start more formal academic education, they are able to learn more quickly. Alongside reading, writing and maths, this kind of social development, whether in the French system or some other, could be a core responsibility of schools. There are a lot of children growing up who get frustrated easily, find it difficult to interact with others, and lose their temper quickly - doing something about this has clear and obvious benefits.

One woman, bringing up a family in Glasgow, said that her six year old son came home from
school one day with a question. "If I want something, do I have to be bad to get it?" Another said that her friend who was in prison found he was enjoying it - as it offered a chance to make friends, try out new things and be sure to have basic things like three meals a day. There is something particularly alarming about the first of these experiences - it is right that small children get help and support when they first get into trouble, but it shouldn't mean that children learn that to get help or attention that they have to be bad. It's similar when holiday activities are available as part of 'diversionary programmes' aimed at small numbers of young people who have criminal records, but there is nothing for young people who aren't causing trouble to others to do.

This isn't an argument for cutting back on programmes which work with people who have criminal records or who are likely to go on to do so without help - they do a lot of good. But if it's not right for prisoners to have to skip meals, then a parent trying to bring up children shouldn't have to either, and those children shouldn't miss out on opportunities which are offered to their classmates who disrupt lessons.

The debate about policing appears to consist of whether or not we need more of them out not filling in forms but instead patrolling the streets (as opposed to working on specific programmes to address, say, gun crime), arguments about crime statistics over the years of interest mainly to politicians. None of this explained the experiences of people whose children had been harassed for no reason, or who had been victims of crime and had promises that someone from the police would be in touch which never materialised, or crimes which got ignored because 'that sort of thing always happens in that area', or programmes being started up, promises being made, and then priorities changing and people's trust being lost.

As with every other public service, there are many police officers who do a great job, there are challenges with resources, and there are expectations from the public which are sometimes completely impossible to meet. Services provided by the NHS or local councils are always being looked at to see how they could and should be reformed to make sure that they meet the needs of people (in the case of victims of crime, I think the word 'customers' is even less appropriate than usual). Many of the people who are most enthusiastic about this when it applies to other services seem to suggest that when it comes to policing, the only questions are those of providing more money and reducing the amount of form filling. That won't be sufficient unless other changes happen which address the problems which people find when they deal with the police.

The things which led to terrible and senseless tragedies like Rhys Jones' murder, and those of the other young people killed by guns, won't be solved overnight. There is a big gap between a lot of the solutions proposed by people who have a platform for their ideas and the power to act, and the people who have day to day experiences of these problems, and their ideas about what needs to be done. Trying to fit these events into a pre-existing narrative about poverty-stricken Liverpool or a 'broken society' will do nothing to make sure that in future children don't find themselves in 'the wrong place at the wrong time'.


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