Great expectations

[This article was published in the latest edition of Anticipations, the Young Fabians’ quarterly magazine]

There is no single definitive explanation for last summer’s riots across cities in England. But the fact that hundreds of children – 720 of those in court are aged 10 and 17-years-old-  took part should make us question why and how.

The riots did not occur in isolation to what is happening in wider society, where many communities are beginning to feel the effects of the 2008 recession. Young people from these communities face a bleak future, not helped by historically low levels of social mobility, meaning they are unlikely to escape the penury of their parents. It is striking that 73% of those charged with riot-related offences are under 25, according to justice ministry statistics published in February. And according to the Guardian newspaper’s data on the first 1,100 riot-related cases, 41% of suspects lived in the most deprived places in Britain, while 66% of all suspects live in areas that got poorer between 2007 and 2010.

Amid the chaos of burning cars, angry teenagers and riot police in Hackney last August, a local youth worker explained why he thought young people were rioting that night: “It’s a poor thing. This is young black [kids] who have had enough. The poor white working class kids are out there as well. They are not calling for a change in the government. It is the whole society they are against.”

Is there any justification for such a bleak response?

Just over a million under 25-year-olds are unemployed. Young people heading to university this autumn will pay around £27,000 for a three-year degree. On top of this some universities still struggle to attract poorer students; last year the Office for Fair Access found that a quarter of all universities missed targets to widen access.

For young people wanting to pursue a professional career, money is everything. Careers such as the law and even journalism, require postgraduate study which can cost anywhere between £7K and £16K. Many jobs demand the completion of unpaid internships, and where such work experience lasts longer than a few weeks, it is the poorest, already woefully underrepresented in many professions, who will suffer.

Before even reaching this stage, many young people experience the lottery of state education. Those who draw the short straw face not only years of poor teaching, but a serious lack of guidance and support about life after the age of 16.  This manifests itself in numerous ways. Last year, in a Confederation of British Industry survey, 44% of employers said they had had to invest in remedial training for school leavers, 35% said young people lacked basic numeracy skills and 55% complained about poor self-management skills. Students who want to attend university are also short-changed. Following last year’s A-level results, comprehensive schools were criticised for encouraging students to study less traditional subjects. This would not matter so much if alternative courses led to more employment opportunities, but in the current climate this is unlikely.

The dearth of proper guidance for young people will get worse now the government has scrapped the ring-fence for teen services such as Connexions. Last winter, I met up with staff and young people at the Crib, a much-needed youth centre in east London, where rioting was particularly violent. The Crib tries to offer extra tuition and careers guidance for disadvantaged children in the local area, but has been forced to sack 12 members of staff since the council dramatically scaled back funding.

In the wake of the rioting last summer, I spent hours chatting to Yohanes Scarlett, a bright and engaged 20-year-old student from Ladbrook Grove, about possible solutions to the problems affecting young people in Britain, and why some of his friends felt they had to riot. You can my read more of my interview with him here: http://www.newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2011/09/13/riots-uk-police-politics/

On the issue of employment, Yohanes says there should be a working class equivalent to the middle-class networks that enable privileged young people to excel. “Youth clubs need to become more of an opportunity – not just there to pass time and keep young people off the streets,” he says. “There is only so much table tennis and snooker you can play.

“[Why not] have entrepreneurs coming in and saying, ‘OK I will take some people from this area because I grew up here and I will teach them something.’ People would be more likely to pay attention there and in schools if they felt there was actually light at the end of the tunnel.”

But even if young people get the right training and skills to equip them for either university or post-16 employment, where are the jobs to apply for?

While there are many exemplary apprenticeships on offer, these are oversubscribed. Just 35% of all young people choose to go to university, yet the emphasis in schools is still too focused on academic options. Those who do not want to go to university need more options for long-term quality employment. There is a desperate need for new and innovative career choices.

I met 18-year-old Lakshmi while researching my pamphlet on eco-activists in London. Lakshmi has a qualification in beekeeping and helps run the Golden Company, a social enterprise offering advice and training to urban beekeepers. She says: “The majority of graduates that have just come out of university can’t find jobs. It is really difficult. The best option now for young people is to simply to do stuff like apprenticeships, training programmes and work your way up.”

In many ways, Lakshmi is right. There should certainly be better and more targeted support for academically bright children from poorer backgrounds to obtain places at the best universities; but there must also be alternative opportunities for the rest. To avoid a lost generation the government must provide more than just free schools. “Education, education, education” alone failed to keep children from looting last summer. With youth unemployment rocketing, new policy must combine good education, training and quality employment opportunities.

Why so quiet…

It has been a while since I’ve blogged anything, mainly because I’ve been working to eat and pay the rent, but for more exciting reasons too. I’ve been writing up a different kind of article with my friend, the talented photographer Christina Theisen. Our joint effort looking at environmental projects in London will published by Lonely Coot very soon…right now it’s being edited.

I’ve also been working on a long-form article for the Dominion of New York on the disproportionate use of stop and search on black people living in London. In light of the Guardian’s recent coverage of police racism, I guess it’s pretty timely too. Read my article here.

I worked on the Women’s Budget Group’s response to George Osborne’s 2012 Budget and last year’s spending review. It is a pretty damning indictment of the government’s seeming ignorance of the effect of its policies on women. The WBG is a group of professionals and experts who have been analysing and evaluating economic policy for years, so I’m pretty honoured to work with them.  Have a look at some of their latest reports here.

And finally I’ve been longlisted for the George Orwell blog prize for political writing. Ridiculously excited about this as obviously I admire Orwell’s journalism. His essay on political writing is why I try to keep things simple, stay out of the story and let the subjects speak.

Over the next few weeks I will continue blogging my work on undocumented migrants in Europe and some new reporting on female asylum seekers detained in British immigration removal centres. Thanks for reading.

Is this what gentrification looks like?

I’m not really an opinion blogger; instead I prefer to tell stories based on my reporting and research. However, every now and then, I do like to let off steam. So below are a few of my scattered reflections on the riots in London this summer, which I reported on for the Washington Post here, here and here, and for the New Internationalist here, and Legal Action magazine here.

And if you want some meaningful polemic, go read what Gary Younge says about rioting http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/14/young-british-rioters-political-actions

And Camila Batmanghelidjh here http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/camila-batmanghelidjh-caring-costs-ndash-but-so-do-riots-2333991.html

***

I hate the word gentrification. It carries such unpleasant connotations. The dictionary definition of ‘to gentrify’ is to renovate or improve a house or district so that it is in keeping with middle class taste. There is nothing wrong with improvement as such, but it does depend on who it is for, how it’s done and why it is being done.

On the radio a few days ago, the area where I live in East London was described as the UK’s answer to the Silicon Valley. The comment referenced the number of tech/design start-ups in the area. More intriguing for me is the social effect of the contrast between a new, elite and flourishing industry, and increasing hardship for everyone else as the effects of the recession start to kick in.

I have never been to San Francisco; I wonder if it really is as divided as where I live. In nearly every street you can find plenty of middle-class hipsters lounging in charming, if overpriced, cafes with identikit Macbooks and single-speed bikes in tow. And in nearly every street, living cheek by jowl to the gated communities and posh bars, are communities of much less time-rich, and significantly less cash rich, families. Add to that a generous sprinkling of neglected, mentally ill people and many long-term unemployed men.

(A random example of such disparities is a hilarious restaurant review by Giles Coren, where he ventures all the way from West London to London Fields (east London) for dinner, and is alarmed by the presence of young boys wearing hooded jumpers riding low bikes and the proximity of people on low incomes. Maybe it was a joke. Except I think there are lots of people like Mr Coren that actually live in Hackney.)

I remember researching an article looking at the effects of the British government’s spending cuts on women; within a short a distance of the Town Hall I was able to find two mothers who would both be affected adversely, except one would be cushioned by the comforts of her class while the other, an Eastern European immigrant, foresaw only a future of despair.

It is not apartheid; there are plenty of people in the middle, people just getting by. There are good schools, people running up their own businesses, excellent social programmes and a ton of working class people doing just fine. So generally it all feels quite harmonious. Every Saturday the Socialist Worker party tries to radicalize everyone by selling their newspapers on the main high streets; most people happily wander past into Primark or McDonalds or one of the aforementioned cafes. Before the riots in August, I was oblivious to any serious tensions between East London’s wildly differing communities.

And yet when out reporting on the riots, what emerged was a mess of resentment and bewilderment at the growing gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in the area.

I got chatting to a young woman in London Fields, born and bred in East London; she expressed shock at the levels of violence, though was not surprise that the riots happened. Then she revealed her plans to leave Hackney and set up a fashion business. But surely the best place to run a fashion business would be Hackney? The East London borough is a stone’s throw from the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley.  And it’s not just the next Facebook or Google that could spring from the area; artists, designers and fashion industry types all ply their various trades from the borough’s warehouses and cafes.

Yes, all that’s true, she agreed. There are all these new communities, but they are separate, “they all have degrees”. Degree-less, and from a different community, she feels unable to network or move in their circles. She was not complaining, simply stating the facts of her experience.

The inadvertent segregation that sometimes follows gentrification can breed unhealthy resentment or, as in the case above, an intangible sense of unease. This is not created not by residents living within that community, but by outside forces such as property developers, for example, creating expensive homes beyond even the dreams of those living on the estate across the road.

The media plays its role; I did not realize that the road I live on is part of a no go area till I read about it during the riots. Some of the journalists and columnists that opined and wrung their hands about this bit of London, probably live a stone’s throw away from the worst estates, but still have little clue as to what goes on there; so they imagine the worst. This bugged one teenage boy I spoke to:

“Wherever someone has been stabbed, they will now pinpoint that area and say it is a bad area and they will start bringing up articles and numbers of people stabbed in this area, and make [out] … that area is unsafe.

“But day in and day out, that area is actually good. It is not as bad as they are making out. They make it seem like it is happening everyday, which is making everyone else more scared. So it is corrupting them. If they are there to see it day in and out they will see that … it is not as bad as they are saying.”

This clash of identities in so-called “gentrified areas” was summed up best for me, when during the riots, a young man wearing rolled up skinny jeans, a fitted T-Shirt and a trilby, tried to cycle his one-speed through a crowd of rioters. The contrast between the teenage boys wearing their own uniform of hooded jumpers, baggy pants-on-display trousers, was striking.

This sharp disconnect between tribes was made more stark the day after the riots when a group of well meaning people organized a mass clean-up. An eager gaggle of people with brooms and grins descended on our street ready to sweep away the miserable mess of the riots. But the overturned rubbish bins, broken glass, remnants of the impromptu bonfires and even the blood red graffiti (Fuck Cameron, Fuck the Feds), had all been cleaned up already. By 7am, the poorly-paid cleaners had done what they do everyday; after that they duly melted into the background.