The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 27th, 2004

There’s a murderous mix in our inner-city schools

Last Wednesday afternoon Kieran Rodney-Davies was stabbed to death near his home in Fulham by a gang of boys who wanted his mobile phone. He was only 15, about the same age as his attackers, and he was out on an errand for his mother.

At one moment she had a sensible, charming, funny, loving son and at the next he was bleeding to death in the arms of a weeping friend.

This is the nightmare of every inner-city mother in the country. We have sons who have been menaced and robbed and beaten, in streets both rich and poor, by children not much older than themselves, often just for the hell of it. The streets of London are not safe for teenage boys.

One might assume from Kieran’s name and address in a smart part of London that he was a child of privilege. In a way he was, in that he came from a good home and had been brought up to be kind and helpful and to stay out of trouble, and such a careful upbringing is a privilege these days, especially for a boy whose mother is a single parent and lives on a council estate.

However, the truth is his degree of privilege made no difference; there is a terrible equality about the dangers of inner-city streets today.

After my first feeling of immense sympathy for Kieran’s mother, my second feeling was one of fury. It seems scarcely possible that Britain’s inner-city streets have in less than 20 years been allowed to become so disgracefully dangerous with little or nothing to anticipate it, to stop it or even to protest.

These days 25% of all street assaults and robberies are thought to be carried out by people under 18, increasingly including girls. Such children carry out more than 50,000 muggings a year in London alone.

My son and his friends have been threatened and mugged and stalked constantly. The first time it happened to my son was in daylight after school outside McDonald’s in Notting Hill.

He was 12 at the time. The time that school gets out is becoming increasingly dangerous. Bad teenagers get let out from the restraints of school, such as they are. Other even worse teenagers are hanging round the school gates waiting to prey on the pupils.

It is hardly surprising that people who can afford to get out of the inner cities are doing so as fast as they can. It’s a mistake to call this white flight, although it is predominantly white at present. Strictly speaking, it is rich flight and responsible flight — middle-class flight. It is a racing certainty that ethnic minority parents who have enough money will very soon and very fast be joining the queue to the burbs. I imagine Kieran’s mother might very well have preferred to bring her son up in a safe, leafy suburb with a good school had she had the option.

Tony Blair’s latest proud new initiative — yet another one — disclosed on Friday, was to entice the middle classes back into inner-city state schools by promising new improved facilities and standards in new improved city academies. This is just silly.

What’s wrong with inner-city schools these days, as he must know, is not so much the schools — the ideology or the facilities or the funding or the teaching — as the pupils. White flight is the flight of responsible middle-class parents from feral, violent, illiterate schoolchildren, who will terrorise their own children and wreck their education. Such parents can hardly be expected to put a sticking plaster of middle-class morality on the gaping wound of social breakdown.

The notorious comprehensive where I live has an exceptional head teacher, who is rapidly improving it, plenty of money, dedicated teachers and wonderful facilities.

However, I could not send my son there because of some of the other pupils. They are too dangerous. Others, while not precisely an active menace, are highly undesirable company by any standards.

The idea that a new IT block or some specialist music teaching would change my mind is laughable. The children are the problem, and their problem is community breakdown in a fragmented society.

Kieran’s horrible death reminded me very much of Damilola Taylor’s. Damilola, too, was stabbed near home by a group of schoolchildren and left to bleed to death. Both were good black boys killed by bad boys, black or white.

And the question behind Damilola’s death is the same, and remains unanswered. How did such a desperate culture develop among inner-city children in a rich and well-meaning society like ours, so that innocent children of all backgrounds live in fear and sometimes in terror? I’ve often thought that there are obvious answers and we’ve been busily avoiding them for many years.

Communities have been breaking down in inner cities because too many strains have been put on them, with little thought about what community is. Community depends on a degree of social cohesion and that depends on a critical mass of familiarity, shared language, shared tradition and shared moral attitudes.

What has happened in inner-city areas like those in London is that too many different people have been thrown together too fast in too many areas that were already deprived.

A degree of social diversity can be excellent. But extreme diversity is the enemy of community, as we have seen. Extreme diversity has stretched the bonds of community beyond breaking point in some parts of Britain. More diversity will be worse.

When Damilola was murdered in Peckham, southeast London, the ethnic composition of the area (according to the Peckham Partnership) was 43.4% white, 15.9% black Caribbean, 26.6% black African, 4.1% black other, 7.9% Asian and 2.2% other. The serious tension between some of these groups is well known, not least between Caribbeans and Africans.

The critical 1997 Ofsted report for my local comprehensive pointed out that there were more than 100 nationalities represented in the school, with the pupils speaking more than 70 languages and 58% of them learning English as an additional language; 300 were refugees or asylum seekers.

More than half of all schoolchildren in greater London are now “non-white”. And according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics, one in 12 people now living in this country (about 8%) came here as an immigrant, with a sharp increase since Labour took office.

Naturally enough, this does not count the numbers who have arrived illegally, which may be much larger, as an immigration official recently suggested in court. That’s to say, at the least 8% of people here are recent arrivals, not established British-born people of immigrant forebears.

We know now that the immigration system is widely abused and out of control. We also know now that too much diversity is dangerous, not least to children, and perhaps most of all to ethnic minority children. I wonder whether Blair has an exciting new initiative about that or whether he prefers still to hide behind accusations of racism.