I am home again. In London. To be frank, I didn’t know what to expect: in the various airport lounges on my way back from Bali, I could see unsettling pictures of London on fire. Rioters were smashing shop windows and then stealing everything they could before burning the rest. It isn’t the sort of scenes you expect to see in London, especially a year before the Olympics. The police have arrested many rioters, and one of them is an 11-year old boy!
How can this happen in London? What started as a peaceful demonstration against the shooting of a man (who happened to be a father of 4) by the police in Tottenham ended up as the most violent riot in London in living memory.
As I am writing, things are not under control and 16 000 police officers will be patrolling the city tonight. London feels empty, and there are more policemen than tourists in the streets today. I can hear sirens and fire alarms every five minutes from my office.
What went wrong? How did it come to this debacle? I won’t enter into a political debate here as I am not sure that stigmatising specific communities will help. It seems to me that the only way to be seen and heard, for the rioters, is to loot, destroy and create as much chaos as possible. They don’t know, haven’t found or maybe haven’t learned to express themselves in a different way. When you destroy shops, there are news reports and suddenly the whole world is watching you. It is very difficult to have the same instant impact on society when you work honestly. So they went for the “easier” option, the one that, they perceive, give them instant gratification.
To me this is, amongst other things, a problem of social mobility. Most state schools in London are, to put it politely, not very good (I would know, my daughter didn’t know her 2 time table when she was 7, whereas in France she would have been expected to know most of them by the same age. Her school was supposed to be “outstanding” according to the Ofsted report –the Ofsted is the body that inspects state schools over here). In short, in London, if the parents don’t have the money or the time and skills to educate their children, well, basically, their kids don’t stand a chance to get a proper education, find their vocation and get a job they like.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not excusing what the rioters have done. Far from it, I think that it is unacceptable and they should understand what effort and hard work mean, and hopefully that is what they will learn when they get punished. But we also have an obligation to give the rioters some hope in their future. And the only way to do this is to give them a proper education. I don’t have a ready-made solution. It might be to bring back the selective grammar schools. It might be to learn a useful job at a younger age (why wait until all hope is lost?). But it is about giving them some skills and restoring their hopes in the future. Yes, there is another way. It is not an easy one, but it is an honest one.