‘If we abandon a cross-section of the community in our inner cities, they have a way of bringing themselves back into the political narrative-a way that is not good for them or for society’
– Diane Abbott MP
“I know how difficult it is to bring children up in this area where there are limited resources. However, this young man stood out like a beacon and would have been a role model for all the young people who live around here”
The words of former Tower Hamlets Mayor, Doros Ullah, as he commented on the murder of Ajmol Alom, a 16 year old student who was fatally stabbed several days ago. Mr Ullah went on to criticise the government for not resourcing youth services well enough and was joined in his criticisms by Rukan Hassan, a gang mediation project co-ordinator. According to him the severe cuts left his programme of summer projects effectively ‘running on fumes’.
£877m the sum spent on youth services throughout Britain between 2011 and 2012, £177m more than the monies set aside by the DfE for the construction of one academy; considerably less than the amount overspent by the DfE on all the schools which have converted to academies in the same period (£1bn).
£1,184m the amount of money invested in youth services two years ago, 26% higher than it is now. It might be hard for some to understand why youth workers, MPs, members of various communities and youth project co-ordinators are complaining so bitterly about these cuts.
After all, it is clear that young people are increasingly immersed in social networking, texting frenetically on their Smart Phones and Blackberrys as if their lives depended on it. Surely this diminishes any need for the extensive provision of youth services across the country? But then many of the youth service projects being run have little to do with the affluent youngsters whose parents can afford to keep them entertained at home and so keep them safe.
After the riots in August 2011, it became clear that one child’s Blackberry is another child’s crime facilitator.
‘Everyone in edmonton enfield wood green everywhere in north link up [meet] at enfield town station at 4 o clock sharp!! Start leaving ur yards [homes] n linking up with your niggas. Fuck da feds [police], bring your ballys and your bag trollys, cars vans, hammers the lot!!’
The message was sent through the free BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) network, a network which whilst intended for decidedly benign usuage became a key tool for many who participated in the riots. One ex-gang member explained how it was that she and many others from economically deprived communities across England were able to afford a handset.
“I pay £5 a month then I get to use it for a month. I can go on the internet as well, for a fiver.”
The cheap price of some of the hand sets helped massively, on the black market a Blackberry Curve handset could cost on average £60.00. With the help of BBM rioters were able to co-ordinate their rioting and looting with a degree of accuracy that left many wondering exactly why these youngsters were failing to engage successfully with society at large.
It was suggested by a partner at DLA Piper that the rioters weren’t using BBM because they thought it was secure, and he’s right they weren’t, they were using it because they knew it was. The police having considerable knowledge about organised crime gangs were able to use the same service to track down rioters with consent from the company who created it.
After the riots it became clear that of the four thousand people arrested, 42% were between 10 and 21 years old. Two thirds of the youngsters involved had special needs and almost all of them had been excluded from school. These were the kinds of youngsters for whom the provision of youth services would have been key and yet the government had made it clear that the provision of these services was not a priority.
Camila Batmanghelidjh, is the founder of Kids Company, a charity which currently supports 17,000 children, 97% of whom come off the streets (rather than being referred by social services) having heard about the charity through school, and 87% of whom are homeless, as well as being mentally and emotionally traumatised in any number of ways. Unsurprisingly, many of the children accessing the charity’s services are not doing very well at school, and are prone to demonstrating ‘anti-social’ behaviour.
Behaviour which though some may perceive it to be morally perverse , actually enables them to survive in communities that are severely impoverished and dangerous places for these youngsters to survive let alone thrive in. In such communities the only thing that counts is survival, any attempt to define these children as morally flawed must fail, since these children are constantly having to radically adapt to their environments in order to survive.
In order for their behaviour to be transformed they need the long term support of a range of professionals, from teaching staff, to psychologists, social workers, foster carers and even lawyers. However, the cuts to council services are such that frequently the charity has difficulty persuading ‘commissioning agents’ to provide funding for the basic care of such children.
Camila had this to say about the kind of world we are creating for some children and their families,
“What you’ve done is you’ve made large numbers of people so exhausted with living, so fed up with being disenfranchised, so disempowered, that they’ve gotten to a point where they don’t care anymore about what happens to them and they can fight dirty.”
Ironically, it wouldn’t take much to turn this situation around, perhaps a grant or two to professionals like Miss Batmanghelidjh, allocated funding for youth centres and refuge centres for children such as these, oh, and maybe a boarding school? £700 million in funding ought to cover that much I reckon.
The point being that when it comes to enabling the nation’s youth to achieve and aspire there really are two sides to the equation. And how easy it is to forget that and wind up with a situation where somebody’s talented son or daughter fails to realise their future; because they had the misfortune to cross the path of a young person whose future was never given much thought, since it was not really considered a ‘priority’.
Tackling the impact of poverty on educational attainment