Schools, bathrooms and barricades

Schools, bathrooms and barricades

There is nothing inherent in human-ness that means teenage bowel movements must be policed. Young people are not innately bad actors for whom suspicion equals due diligence. Erecting barricades that block children from accessing toilets is a visible symptom of a failed system.

The fact these ‘policies’ exist across many secondary schools demonstrates a catastrophic failure of imagination and the internalisation of harmful ideologies. Our minds are so captured by fallacious ideas like ‘standards’, ‘results’, ‘accountability’ and ‘competition’ that we cannot see how they limit our vision and shape conceptions of ‘good practice’. As students protest, often supported by parents, the reaction of the media and some senior teachers has been both predictable and lamentable. Robbing people of their rights and labelling protestation as ‘rioting’ is an ancient refrain of power holders. It is also fashionable to blame social media and ridicule the concerns of teenagers, which ignores the actual causes which are more complex. The school system is a tinderbox; toilet policing is a spark.

Modern schooling is a credentialing game where teachers are held to such high account for the delivery of pre-fabricated curricula and the moulding of human beings into examination drones that few contrary values or rights can co-exist. In some cases this includes the right of children to, staggeringly, access toilets. We have become a society so focussed on policing ‘misbehaviour’ or ‘non-compliance’ that removing basic, fundamental human rights for all children in a community is justified. What lesson do young people learn from this other than resentment? 

The problems extend far beyond the WC. Once they reach the crunch years and GCSE pressure begins to bite, young people are unable to exert any control, whatsoever, ever, over what content they cover, how they learn, who they learn with or for how long. Their emotional health, aspirations and individuality are sidelined. This process accelerates in year 9 due to government policies that demand academic ‘progress’ in a fashion so aggressive that schools feel compelled to begin gaming the system by narrowing curriculum earlier. That said, whilst pressure intensifies in secondary school, the damaging impact of an education shaped around standards instead of people begins with SATs in year 6. As one young person put it, children as young as 10 learn that ​​‘extreme levels of anxiety or stress and depression are normal’. 

A report released this week found that for nearly one in two 15-16 year-old young people in England, school is ‘not an enjoyable or meaningful experience’, but something they feel they must ‘get through’. Many ‘secondary schools have adopted teaching methods that many young people experience as alienating and stressful’ and students feel ‘forced to learn subjects of little interest to them’. This is particularly tough for young people who are identified as having ‘special education needs’. As a psychologist working in the school, prison and Pupil Referral Unit sectors, I can tell you the damage caused by schooling is profound, widespread and can have lifelong implications for our young people. Many of those I meet are extremely angry. They feel unheard, betrayed and utterly disempowered.

In turn, teachers are subject to an all-encompassing coercion. Of course, many school leaders are equally frustrated, react in divergent ways and do not agree that barring toilets is legitimate. We have mountains of data that reveal the pernicious impact of school cultures as expressed by students, teachers and parents alike. Persistent absence has increased astronomically and more and more families are choosing to home educate their children rather than send them to school. These trends were observable pre-COVID. Justifying a system that stops toilet visits, prohibits student-teacher relationships, excludes thousands, off-rolls countless more and consigns a third to failure based on a computerised algorithm requires serious cognitive gymnastics. Teachers are increasingly unwilling to jump through the hoops or remain complicit and are leaving the profession in droves. Retention and recruitment is more difficult than ever. 

The prevailing narratives of standards, rigid success criteria and forced compliance have petrified normal human interactions, introduced Us versus Them dynamics and set people against one another. Students versus teachers, teachers versus parents, teachers versus academics, schools versus local authorities, schools versus Ofsted, professionals versus families and numerous other combinations of discordant relationship are normalised. None of this is ‘normal’. Systemic distrust is not a natural feature of social systems. It grows upon a bedrock of ideological poison and oppressive practices that maintain the status quo.

It is absolutely possible for all children to experience an education that does not require adults to undermine their most basic rights. Assembling barriers to block toilet access is not a consequence of common sense. It is the outcome of ideas that have silently recruited our consciousness and have buried their talons so deep that most are unaware of their absurdity. We can do better than this. 


The Schools Bill – a sleep-walk into tyranny?

The Schools Bill – a sleep-walk into tyranny?

It’s been a frenetic few months in the education policy arena. The release of a Schools Bill was announced, then shelved; new attendance guidance emerged, alongside a consultation around behaviour policy in school. Square Peg and Not Fine in School sought to collate evidence around the impact of current school attendance policies on families where young people face barriers to attendance. These organisations support families when children are struggling to attend school or are at risk of persistent absence. 1,960 parents responded to the survey from all around the UK.

An astonishing 94% reported that school has had a very negative or negative impact on their child’s mental health. Importantly, the vast majority of did not feel that the formal support offered by school or the local authority helped their child to increase their attendance. The survey does not capture the views of all English parents; families who responded are likely those who are experiencing difficulties around school attendance. That said, most families do not have children with special educational needs, for whom navigating the education system can be a monumental war of attrition. 

The findings mirror the experience of Educational Psychologists (EP); we spend much of our time working with young people and families who struggle to cope with the school environment. An inflexible, narrow curriculum, school competition, discriminatory assessment practices and explicit efforts to ‘remove  the  bias  towards  inclusive education’ have pressaged an era where school policies are increasingly less accepting of difference and neurodiversity. Combined, these factors create a climate where more and more children cannot cope, stop attending school and are met with growing suspicion and threat of punishment. At the same time, attendance policing has ratcheted up exponentially. As if forcing someone to do something that harms them is an educational tool. 

Solutions posited by parents were the need for a ‘flexible curriculum’, ‘reasonable adjustments’ and ‘prioritising student wellbeing’. The British Psychological society, in a response to the behaviour consultation, are united with parents around the need to consider these factors, alongside relational approaches and viewing behaviour as a form of communication; we don’t need to look far to find a national intention to implement these as convention; across the border in Scotland these approaches are enshrined in their ‘Relationships, Learning and Behaviour’ policy.  

At Square Peg we hear from desperate parents who have been blamed, shamed and disbelieved. Most of my practice is in the youth justice sector and in a Pupil referral / mental health unit and the same themes are endlessly repeated. Schooling, for some young people and families, is a significant cause of psychological distress; a trigger for mental health challenges that can persist. This is an unassailable fact. 

As a society, we can either accept this, listen in good faith and think together about how to change things, or engage in legislative gaslighting as the government are currently doing. In its current form, schooling is not a valid conceptualisation of education for all. It is no accident that the most common challenge described by parents on the Square Peg survey was ‘school environment’. An excellent podcast by Missing the Mark illuminates this issue and sheds light on the experience of families who are told their child must attend school, regardless of the consequences to their mental health. For those who cannot comply with its demands, the school system operates like a gigantic scapegoating machine.

Implications of this harsh reality have been presented by parents in consecutive government consultations over many years. The response has been absolute denial that schooling does not work for everyone and a litany of documents codifying an increasingly aggressive system of threats, fixed penalty notices, criminalisation and imprisonment. No evidence has been presented, ever, demonstrating the efficacy of terrifying parents into forcing their child to attend school. Doing so can lead to catastrophic consequences, including an escalation of distress and lifelong mental health difficulties for those who struggle to cope in a system that cannot adapt to their individual needs.

The proposed Schools Bill represents the most pernicious power grab attempted by the government since the 1980s. Whilst it has been delayed for now, the ideologies and approaches might emerge in more pernicious ways, through ‘guidance’ documents that are not subject to democratic oversight. Even Lord Baker, who presided over the introduction of the national curriculum as Education Secretary; an epoch of vastly expanded government control over schooling, has objected. Baker criticised the proposals for increasing “the powers of the secretary of state and the DfE in a way unprecedented since 1870”. Ironically, Lord Baker seems to have forgotten that his reign involved the last ‘unprecedented’ attack on school, teacher and family autonomy. The 1988 Education Reform Act resulted in an imposed, inflexible national curriculum, the encroachment of school privatisation, school competition and sweeping power for the secretary of state over policies. Recent proposals go even further and have the potential to rob young people and families of agency to an astonishing extent and will create a climate of us vs them and systemic distrust never-before-witnessed. 

It contains legislation that would compel parents to sign ‘voluntary’ parenting contracts which may be used as evidence to fine, prosecute or subject families to ‘parenting orders’. A distorted conception of ‘Children’s Rights’ is being weaponised to coerce families into sending children to a school named by a local authority, regardless of the child and family’s perception as to whether the provision is appropriate. Families who refuse to accept ‘formal support’ offered by a school or local authority can be accused of ‘non-compliance’, regardless of the context. In addition, detailed information on young people will be collated and held for 66 years, without consent. 

We are sleep-walking into an age of educational tyranny, a place where the state’s right to enforce its version of schooling trumps a young person and family’s right to health. A place where a parent refusing ‘formal support’ can be construed as ‘neglectful’, regardless of the consequences and where attendance is deemed essential even if a child is being traumatised daily and is not learning. A government does not have rights, citizens do. Democracy requires that all have a stake in what and how children are educated; this latest wave of oppressive legislation undermines individual liberty and the right to family life. 

At issue here is not a lack of evidence around what works, but political ideologies that are not subject to rational challenge, alongside an assumed right for the government to enforce its will whatever the cost. We must resist.

Cricket, racism and me

I spent much of my teens on a Cricket field. Throughout those formative years, I represented Worcestershire County Cricket Club and many instances of racism occurred that were consigned to a shadowy penitentiary in my memory. That is, until the story of Azeem Rafiq emerged. Rafiq reported a litany of racial abuse whilst playing for Yorkshire County Cricket Club that left him feeling “isolated, lonely, bullied”, targeted because of his race and at times, “suicidal”. 

An agonising trip down memory lane was triggered by his plight. Aged 13, I recalled a young leg spinner of Pakistani descent being taunted by other team members. Some team mates joined in earnestly, others ignored it. To my shame, I sat there uncomfortably and said nothing. He didn’t trial for the county the next year and we never saw him again. A coincidence? Later, in my mid-teens, I was captain of the side and another county renowned for their combative, aggressive on-field approach included a British Asian fast bowler who was the quickest in the country at our age. I can’t recall the precise context but at some point in the match, as a way of re-exerting dominance over the opposition, the coach suggested saying “f*ck off you black b*stard”. This ignominious event prompted a complaint from a parent, but some of the team laughed heartily. Again, I sat motionless, squirming on the dressing room bench as most of the squad accepted this bigotry as “banter”. These accounts are eerily similar to those recounted by Rafiq, who identified numerous cases of “racist comments” described as “banter”.  

At first, Yorkshire CCC tried to cover up the events; a later investigation found at least seven counts of “bullying and racial harassment”. In response, Roger Hutton (Yorkshire Chief Exec) offered an “unreserved apology”. However, in the same interview he claimed not to have met anyone at the club that he would “consider a racist”. One player admitted to saying: “don’t talk to him [Rafiq], he’s a P**i”, “is that your uncle?” when they saw bearded Asian men and “does your dad own those?” in reference to corner shops. Did Roger Hutton not know the players at his own club, or is the approach to deny racism, regardless of the evidence? Making a vague, general apology for racist abuse whilst denying that it exists fails to challenge the culture where racism germinates. 

In what other context would you observe this sort of cognitive gymnastics. It’s hard to imagine someone stating: “I apologise that my friends stole a car but I don’t consider any of them thieves” or “my colleagues habitually make inappropriate sexual comments to women but I don’t consider any of them sexist”. 

Cricket has a hugely problematic history in relation to race. In a recent Sky Sports documentary, ‘The Story of England’s Black Cricketers’, we hear from ex-England legends Chris Lewis, Devon Malcolm, Dean Headley and others. Their stories speak for themselves. The show is uncomfortable viewing and confirms that Cricket + Racism = Business as Usual. It continues in an atmosphere of refutal in the highest echelons of the sports decision makers. In England, whilst many thousands of British Asian’s play cricket, very few make it professionally. They make up nearly a third of club players, but just 4% of first-class county players. Are Rafiq’s reports reminiscent of those in other contexts? Certainly. 

In my work with young people in the youth justice and education systems, instances of racism have been consistent and conspicuous. It is impossible to listen to the stories of family after family who’ve been systematically subject to it without having one’s eyes forcibly ripped open. Once the discrimination in our institutions are seen, they can’t be unseen. When first directly exposed to these realities, as a naive psychologist, I was crestfallen for two reasons. First, it was necessary to grieve for the lost reality I’d previously enjoyed, where race was hardly an issue. Second, it was crucial to take responsibility for my prior impotence and poor choices to stay silent when racism occurred right in front of me. 

The majority of people do not actively experience racism and hence, it’s tempting to dismiss those citing it as dishonest or misguided. When we see it manifest, there’s a tendency to rationalise, equivocate or bury the ugliness below layers of cognitive bias and unchallenged core beliefs. This is more comfortable than acknowledging the society we live in is built on an illusion of racial impartiality and colour blindness. 

The only difference between Azeem Rafiq’s experiences and those occurring every day in our schools,  communities, workplaces and housing estates are a variation in power holders. What is identical are institutional denials on a mass scale, promoted by a bigotted political class. Over many decades, research has identified institutional racism in relation to housing, investigative policing, stop and search, gang profiling, setting / streaming in education, school exclusion, school uniform policies and elsewhere. Racism impacts upon people from different ethnic minority groups in varied ways across contexts.  

Our government’s ploy has been to stoke cultural resentment and cherry pick a panel of experts to rebuff reality. The United Nations, in an uncharacteristically ferocious attack on a commission by a sovereign government, described the UK’s recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, chaired by Anthony Sewell, as an “attempt to normalize white supremacy despite considerable research and evidence of institutional racism”. Appointing famous denier of racism Anthony Sewell to chair a commission on race is like asking Nigel Farage to chair a commission on Brexit. 

We have a proudly racist Prime Minister, alongside deeply entrenched institutional racism that is far more pernicious than the fanatical dogmatism of the far right. It is ever-present across the organisational spectrum, from county cricket clubs to political coteries. As academic David Gillborn puts it:

“The patterning of racial advantage and inequity is structured in domination and its continuation represents a form of ‘tacit intentionality’ on the part of white powerholders and policy-makers…” 

It is not good enough to apologise for the harm caused by racism then deny racism, as Yorkshire CCC have done; or to sit quietly as I did whilst other human beings are abused and publicly degraded. This “tacit intentionality” is everywhere in our society and is the reason why taking an anti-racist stance is important. Staying silent represents an active choice to ignore prejudice and hence, an intention not to challenge it and maintain the status quo. Being anti-racist means deliberately choosing to say or do something to challenge entrenched discrimination. Positive noises have been made by the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC), who have opened an inquiry into discrimination across the sport. The professed aim is to be “unflinching in holding a mirror up to cricket and saying ‘this is what it feels like for people who are involved’”. The history of inquiries are mostly strewn with empty words and evasion; let’s hope this one is different. 

Current events are a stern reminder of the privileges afforded me as a middle class white man and the necessity to challenge racism when it arises. For my part, having failed to do so as a young man, I am taking responsibility for my previous inaction. I endeavour to challenge prejudice in my practice and personal life and am trying not to flinch in the face of bigotry.

Surprise! Young people are NOT to blame for a spike in COVID cases!

Surprise! Young people are NOT to blame for a spike in COVID cases!

Recently, Matt Hancock suggested that young people, in particular, need to be more careful. He said:

“The fact that 17 to 21-year-olds are not becoming ill means they are lucky, but they also forget because the disease is not severe for them that they are potent spreaders”. He also warned:

Don’t kill your gran by catching coronavirus and then passing it on”.  

Whenever a member of this government says anything, it’s always best to assume it is incorrect. Statements are often so wildly incorrect that you wonder whether their figures are concocted in a secret Whitehall room filled with otters randomly bashing a keyboard. It didn’t feel right, so I checked…

Affirmative, this is totally wrong. It’s unclear why 17-21 year olds were singled out. As you’ll notice from the government’s own data, shown below, cases in 30-39 and 40-49 year olds have increased more than for 10-19 year olds, but Hancock’s decided it’s time to blame the youngsters so why let the figures get in the way of a good brain fart? 

The government’s repeated insinuation that young people are at fault has, unsurprisingly, pissed off many young people, who assert that they follow the rules like others and DO consider gran’s health a priority. They strongly proclaim that they haven’t ‘forgotten’ that they can carry the virus.

What has occured, as shown in Public Health England’s report (looking at COVID-19 cases between 14 August and 20 September 2020) is a significant increase in the infection rate of 20-29 year olds. See above graph again. 

So what’s really going on? Are young people flouting the rules willy nilly, regardless of the impact on their families, or is the situation more complex? I took a closer look at the data and here’re a few musings…

According to the government’s own research, young people (16-24) are far more likely to be in ‘Elementary’ occupations. These consist of simple and routine tasks which require the use of hand-held tools and often physical handling of materials. Such jobs require people to visit workplaces, to be ‘on site’, thus increasing the chance of social mixing and contracting COVID. Young people are also FAR more likely to be in sales/customer service and care roles, which are public facing and require interaction with people and increased risk.

These are the young people employed by companies who were ‘encouraged’ to return to work whilst older folk like me, further down their career pathways, work from home. Surely this is a factor? And so the message is: ‘go to work in workplaces where social mixing is unavoidable’ AND ‘stop social mixing, you’ll kill gran’. 

In addition, young people (18-29) are by FAR the lowest earners. Their jobs are more unstable; unemployment is far more likely in a climate of uncertainty.

Might the prospect of cheap food and thus, entering public houses, restaurants etc be more likely? What young person can turn down a half price meal when money issues are a constant for many? I lived on instant noodles for a year in my early 20s. The chance of a £2.50 meal out would’ve been irresistible. Which members of the population are more likely to use ‘Eat out to help out’ or head to the pub? Young people (18-29) eat out significantly more than older folk in normal times. See below.

Surely, despite eateries trying their best, young people are at increased risk as a consequence of doing what has always been their habit, to go out to eat, spend and socialise? The message has been: ‘go out, spend money in social spaces, it’s great for the economy, restaurants are safe’ AND ‘stop going to social places, you’ll kill gran’. 

The final statistic is particularly striking. There has been a huge increase in ‘COVID related incidents’ in schools. Education providers are now the primary context for  transmission. Some young people who’ve contracted the virus may have done so whilst attending an education provision, something they are unable to avoid.

Hancock is literally saying, ‘you MUST go to school, it’s the best thing for you’ AND ‘don’t meet in groups (which is literally what school is), you’ll kill gran’. 

These factors considered blaming public behaviour, particularly that of young people, for a rise in cases is at best misleading and at worse, stark-raving bullshi*t. Of course, SOME people don’t follow the rules and behave irresponsibly, but the idea this is more likely for young people is totally unsupported by evidence. More politically motivated slurring from Hancock and co.

Evidence suggests that a spike in cases may be due to employment patterns (more social contact at work), relative income instability and poverty (need to save money), consumer habits (increased likelihood to eat out anyway), going to school (because it’s the law) and other things not considered here. FFS, give young people a break, they’re living their lives just like everyone.

Connecting the dots: my birthday, Trump, Grenfell and the far right

Connecting the dots: my birthday, Trump, Grenfell and the far right

I was born on June 14th 1982, a celestial fluke that places me alongside Donald Trump (born 1946) and the Grenfell Tower tragedy three years ago. Last weekend, on 14th June 2020, stories emerged about supporters of the far right taking to the streets of London to “protect statues”. The coincidence of these events and their alignment with my worldly arrival has led to serious reflection. How are these seemingly disparate phenomena connected?

The grimly evocative metaphor, “I can’t breath”, draws together the murder of George Floyd, BLM protests, the Grenfell disaster and Donald Trump. Trump’s position as the world’s most powerful bigot is beyond argument. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Legendary American folk musician, Woody Guthrie, wrote a song, “Old Man Trump”; an ignominious ode to Donald’s father. 

“I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate,

He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts,

When he drawed that color line,

Here at his Beach Haven family project”.

Fred Trump denied rental accomodation to Black people and those on welfare. The start of Donald’s career was mired in controversy; his company was charged by the Department of Justice for racial discrimination

It is easy to dismiss Donald Trump as a clown; an anachronistic chauvinist. That would be a mistake. All Americans knew his views and a majority elected him anyway. The briefest scroll through cyberspace throws up millions worldwide who wholeheartedly share his perspective. Many are in the UK, most obviously in the guise of Britain First and individuals like Tommy Robinson, whose plight has become a “cause célèbre” for the American alt right. However, it’s incorrect to assume that bellicose, fire-spitting racists represent the greatest threat to racial equality. In the UK, we have a proudly racist Prime Minister, alongside deeply entrenched institutional racism that is far more pernicious than the obvious bigotry of the far right. It’s often hidden behind veils of obfuscation. As academic David Gillborn puts it:

“The patterning of racial advantage and inequity is structured in domination and its continuation represents a form of tacit intentionality on the part of white powerholders and policy-makers… ‘white supremacy’ is not the obvious and extreme fascistic posturing of small neo-nazi groups, but rather the taken-for-granted routine privileging of white interests that goes unremarked in the political mainstream”.

Still, it’s comfortable to sit back and exclaim with nonchalance, “the UK is not racist”. On BBC Question Time, actor Laurence Fox did just so, when questioned about the treatment of Meghan Markle by the British press. He scoffed, “we’re the most tolerant, lovely country in Europe” and chafed irritably at a university lecturer in the audience, who dared to challenge this notion. He went on: “It’s so easy to throw the card of racism at everybody and it’s really starting to get boring now”. Fox’s view is one often bandied around social media and in our institutions. Denying the existence of racism is a common refrain. But what is the reality?

In my fields of experience, education and criminal justice, Black Caribbean and Mixed White Caribbean are discriminated against in numerous contexts. They are more likely to be inappropriately placed in low ability groups at school, subject to cultural discrimination in regards to their appearance, inaccurately stereotyped as “poor behaving” and are more likely to be excluded at all ages, including the early years.   

The national curriculum is rigidly implemented and built around white culture and histories, which do not recognise diversity and can leave young people feeling alienated and lost. In the criminal justice system, Black Caribbean and Mixed White Caribbean children are disproportionately subject to Stop and Search, arrest, imprisonment and are erroneously associated with gang culture. These phenomena exist because of deeply rooted “institutional racism”, as described in the Macpherson report on policing. Despite clear demonstration of racial discrimination in education and criminal justice, it continues to be downplayed and sidelined.

Racism extends across all avenues of society. In the case of Grenfell, housing discrimination looms large. As reported by London School of Economics, “institutional racism” has “played a continuing role in perpetuating racial disparities in housing”… “BAME people” are:

“more likely to wait longer for a housing offer, to be offered poorer quality homes, and flats rather than houses. Some housing officers were seen to be steering BAME applicants away from white neighbourhoods, based on judgments about social class as well as racial grounds”.

You’ll notice similarities with education and criminal justice here. Placing certain groups in poorer quality homes vs placing certain children into poor ability groups as a consequence of their ethnicity. Or “steering” / excluding applicants away from white neighbourhoods vs “steering” / excluding Black children away from mainstream schooling. The narratives are similar and the consequences stark. 

Despite years of complaints and clearly communicated fears about the safety of the Grenfell building, 72 people burned to death due to negligence following years of contemptible treatment by Kensington and Chelsea Council. Nobody has been charged with a crime. If this fire had taken place in a white middle class area down the road in Kensington, might the situation have been approached differently? It is a searing indictment of the government that 300 buildings across the UK are still covered with the same cladding that precipitated the Grenfell tragedy. As one survivor put it: “The government are playing Russian roulette every single day and, as we’ve learnt, it’s not if another fire takes place, it’s when another fire takes place”. The government promised that all flammable ACM cladding would be removed by June 2020. It simply is not a priority. 

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to take part in Black Life Matters protests in recent days. As with any large scale protests, a small minority engaged in violence against the police. Obviously, this is unhelpful and unacceptable. Anger about defacing statues triggered rage on social media and prompted the arrival of far right “counter-protestors”. 

Is there a more ironic scenario than fascists descending on London to “protect” war memorials built to celebrate the demise of fascism? WW2 memorials exist because fascists, promulgating racial hierarchy, eliminated millions of those deemed racially inferior and tried to force this ideology onto the world. Millions died to stop this. Here we have scores of modern day fascists, operating (as always) under a veneer of “patriotism”, desecrating British history whilst pertaining to honour it. Their approach was to attack police, urinate on graves, make Nazi salutes in front of monuments, shout racist abuse and violently accost random people sitting in the park, under the influence of booze. Should we be surprised that many citizens see no issue with being openly racist, whilst revering “Britishness”, given the behaviour of British leadership past and present? 

Nope. Frontline politicians of today and yesteryear hold racist views that shape public policies. Johnson’s behaviour echoes previous British Prime Ministers. Despite the worldwide, murderous horrors of Empire, he has proclaimed, with arrogance and ignorance bordering on obscenity

“The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more”. 

Johnson is not an aberration, he represents the norm. Similarly, Trump’s overt racism is a continuation of his family and national culture, an ugly reproduction of the values of white supremacy. He was raised on bigotry and continues the trend. As a consequence of these deeply entrenched, racist inclinations, policies enacted in regards to education, criminal justice and housing continue to incite discrimination. 

Racism by state decree is business as usual. It is not the sole travail of violent far right neo-Nazis and is present in government edicts, your local school, the housing block down the road, in all public institutions. It stifles people. It stunts their growth and sometimes, it plays a role in people, literally, dying. “I can’t breath” is more than a metaphor. It is an actual, lived experience. Whilst some forward strides have been made in recent decades, racial discrimination is ever-present.

It is a source of significant distress that problems Black people have been shouting about for decades are suddenly mainstream and “ok’d” for discussion. Psychologist, Dr Roberta Babb asserts:

“Seeing white people discuss racism with an apparent sense of freedom that has not been afforded to ethnic minorities in the past is painful and more than frustrating…  It feels like conversations about race have been sanctioned and are now allowed, which can evoke feelings of sadness, powerlessness and hopelessness”. 

Organisations such as No More Exclusions, StopWatch UK, Take Back the Power and individual campaigners like Dean Ryan and Lee Meta Jaspar are doing transformative work to bring attention to the issues and propose solutions. This is made difficult by an atmosphere of overwhelming denial. Whilst present events have lifted the shroud somewhat, nothing will change if people remain passive and retreat behind a veil of obfuscation once the dust settles. For Black people, the end of a news cycle will not signal an end to racial discrimination. We need to educate ourselves, recognise the existence of systemic racism and consciously work together to confront it.

I share a birthday with Donald Trump, the Grenfell tragedy and the recent far right protests. This confluence of events are a stern reminder of the privileges afforded me, as a middle class white man and the necessity to challenge racial inequality. In the words of James Baldwin, “ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have”. 

Youth Justice: lockdown and its consequences

Youth Justice: lockdown and its consequences

Young people who have committed criminal offences are sometimes labelled “young offenders”. They are a particularly vulnerable group, frequently with a history of neglect, trauma, child protection intervention, social care placements, family breakdown, school exclusions, learning difficulties and speech and language difficulties. According to the NHS, 41% of young people in young offenders institutions have a diagnosable mental health condition. Some have three or more. 

There is a long standing racial disparity in youth justice outcomes, described by the London School of Economics as The Colour of Injustice. Black, Mixed Race and Asian children from disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately likely to experience “stop and search”, be subject to arrest, placed in remand (in custody awaiting trial) and receive longer sentences than young people in other racial groups. 

How will recent events impact upon young people subject to the youth justice system? What can be done? This article will focus on the impact of COVID-19 and “lockdown” on young people in custody and those subject to Rehabilitation Orders / Referral Orders (ROs), living in their communities. 

The UK criminal justice system is highly punitive when compared with Western European neighbours. There are more children in prison in England and Wales than any other Western European country and the age of criminal responsibility in the UK is 10 years of age, the lowest in Europe.

There are three types of detention in the UK for young people serving sentences. Secure Schools (SCH) are small, local authority run units with high ratios of well-trained staff, with education, therapeutic and behavioural provision tailored to children’s needs. SCHs are widely viewed as the most appropriate provision for the rehabilitation and safety of young people. 

Secure Training Centres (STCs) are purpose built child prisons run by private companies for profit. They have a more punitive ethos, are poorly rated by Ofsted and there are disturbing reports of an “over-reliance on restraint”. 

Most young people are serving sentences in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs). Staff ratios are low, 0.13 staff to one young person during the day, and less at night. Staff numbers have decreased substantially over the past decade; those employed are inexperienced and are not mental health specialists. Violence and self harm in prisons have more than doubled since 2009.

Disturbingly, HM Inspectorate of Prisons report that some children are spending up to 23.5 hours in a cell each day, for days and sometimes weeks on end. “Solitary confinement” contravenes Articles 37 and 40 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This practice is growing in frequency and has escalated since lockdown which is exceptionally concerning. 

Belongingness is a fundamental human motivation. Everyone needs to feel connected to others to maintain a secure state of mental health. In contrast, ostracisation, even for short periods of time can have enormous psychological repercussions that cut deeper and last longer than physical injuries. Solitary confinement is traumatic, tantamount to torture and has lifelong, destructive consequences for psychological wellbeing. The COVID-19 pandemic raises the possibility of further staff reductions and, consequently, increased use of both restraint and solitary confinement as child distress increases and staff, understandably, struggle to cope. A potentially toxic, life-threatening scenario. All visits are now suspended, “only essential staff” will remain on site and social distancing measures are in place. Hence, the isolation experienced by those in solitary confinement might broaden across the prison population. At times of stress increasing connection to trusted others is paramount. There is a danger that our most vulnerable young people will experience the opposite, enhanced isolation. 

Emergency measures must be taken, now. STCs and YOIs are not safe spaces for young people at the best of times. They need access to trusting relationships and the most highly skilled professional support. The government needs to either temporarily release young people and/or work with local authorities to fund more appropriate community-based provisions with adequate staffing and support from social care and mental health professionals.

Young people subject to ROs often live in families who struggle to cope. Many live in conditions of economic uncertainty, compounded by years of austerity where reductions in working-age benefits have pushed down incomes of poorer households. The UK welfare state is less supportive than the OECD average, unemployment is set to rise and the severity of economic decline looks to be without modern precedent. Add to this the reality that many disadvantaged families live in cramped, substandard housing and are likely to be most affected by COVID-19 and you have an extremely concerning confluence of difficulties. Reports are already forthcoming about increased domestic violence

Youth Offending Team (YOT) case workers support young people in complying with the demands of their RO. They develop close working relationships and help them to consider alternative, positive futures. It will be critical for YOT case workers, alongside social services, schools and others to stay in regular contact with young people and families using telephone and social media (Whatsapp/Facetime), to ensure that they are both kept in mind and supported whenever possible. For some young people, contact with YOT case officers and other case workers as part of their RO can be a crucial part of staying safe. 

Increased police powers are a cause for concern. This group of young people are more likely than the general population to ignore movement restrictions, often for justifiable reasons. Some will be trying to escape violence in the home, others to get space from cramped living conditions or family members with mental health challenges. Others will simply be trying to support their families by going out to buy groceries. Others may not understand what is required and may break the rules without intention. It will be essential for the police and other professionals to show understanding when encountering young people in the community, whilst also being vigilant and implementing legislation. 

Some areas of the country are “over-policed”. There is a danger that increased police authority will extend the disproportionality in arrests, remand and prosecution of poor, Black, Mixed Race and Asian children unless this issue is consciously addressed by senior officers. I have worked with young people who have been severely traumatised by their interactions with police officers. Criminalising and alienating distressed, socially vulnerable young people will be counterproductive and should be avoided whenever possible. 

There are other ways that the youth justice system can respond. Research is clear: inducting young people into the criminal justice system does “not have a crime control effect, and across all measures appears to increase delinquency”. The 2016 Review of the Youth Justice System in England and Wales  emphasised this “tainting effect”. 

As one young person put it to me: “they think I’m a bad man so I must be a bad man”. We build our self-perceptions based on how other people and society respond to us. Once a child self-identifies as a “young offender”, this label can become self-fulfilling. Hence the critical importance of keeping children out of the criminal justice system in all but extreme cases. 

Hearteningly, since the 1990s there has been a large decrease in custodial sentences and recorded youth crime. This is, at least partially, a consequence of “diverting” children away from the criminal justice system and employing welfare-based approaches for lower level offences. A child-centred, welfare-based approach will be crucial over the coming months, which will be unpredictable and fraught with obstacles for our most vulnerable young people and families.  

Services should take heed of advice presented by Take Back The Power (TBTP) and User Voice; wisdom from those who have experienced the youth justice system first hand. TBTP wish to “change the narrative” so that young people are viewed as having “complex needs who are not getting the help they should be entitled to”, rather than miscreants who are entitled to punishment. User Voice advocate a focus on “strength based… positive interventions”. As the success of the violence reduction unit in Scotland shows, collaboration across services using similar approaches is both humane and effective. A cultural shift is required. Whilst YOTs work hard to build trust with young people and are more strength-based and solution-focused than ever, the youth justice system remains inherently punitive.  

Reform will require close joint-working between the government, Ministry of Justice, police, YOTs, social services, schools and others. Given the under-resourcing and inhumane state of our prisons, the likelihood of heightened distress, decreased contact with professionals and proliferation of new laws and police powers, young people in the youth justice system are at serious risk of harm during this pandemic. We need to shift our focus from punishment and criminalisation to understanding and rehabilitation in this time of crisis and hereafter. 

Musings from afar

On social media, some say the UK government are doing a “great job”, “everyone’s behind you”, others lament “a dangerous shambles”. Assuming it can’t be both and with the gift of distance (I’m living in Cyprus / out of the loop), I’ve cobbled together a story so far. What does the evidence say about the UK approach? What next?

[Disclaimer: I’m not an epidemiologist / virus expert – all the below is drawn together from reputable sources. Mostly New Scientist, National Geographic, Imperial College London and quotes from experts]

The response so far…

On February 13th, the UK’s scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said that to reduce the peak of the epidemic, the virus should be allowed to spread through the population to build “herd immunity”. According to Akiko Iwasaki, a virologist at the Yale School of Medicine, herd immunity is typically generated through vaccination, and while it could arise through widespread infection, “you don’t rely on the very deadly infectious agent to create an immune population”. As suggested by Helen Ward (Imperial College London): “It’s very strange to use this as a strategy for control without a vaccine”.

Herd immunity is not mentioned in the government’s coronavirus action plan and, as clarified by Matt Hancock (Secretary of State for Health and Social Care), this is not policy. Very confusing. Since then, droplets of new interventions have emerged drip by drip. “It’s been a case of how not to communicate during an outbreak,” says Devi Sridar (Public Health Expert – University of Edinburgh).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) have consistently asserted the need for “urgent and aggressive action”. Former WHO director Anthony Costello described the UK response as “reckless” and likely to “accelerate the epidemic”.

Echoing Mr Costello’s tone, an open letter signed by hundreds of scientists raised serious concerns about the course of action announced:

“We consider the social distancing measures taken as of today as insufficient… additional and more restrictive measures should be taken immediately”.

Furthermore, over 500 behavioral scientists called on the government to disclose the evidence behind its contention that the public will experience “behavioural fatigue” if restrictions are put in place too early. No evidence has been forthcoming.

The UK response has also been out of step with european neighbours, drawing criticism from leaders. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe accused the UK of failing to play its part in the “war” against the deadly illness. Some might recall Boris Johnson’s praise for the bungling mayor, Larry Vaughn, in the movie “Jaws”, who kept the beaches open despite impending shark attacks:

“I loved his rationality. Of course, it turned out that he was wrong. But it remains that he was heroically right in principle.” Really?

Pre-cursor of things to come? Or playful quip posed in jest? What is certainly true is that government policy has made the UK an outlier in Europe.

Is social distancing effective?

There is evidence from previous outbreaks, including the 1918 flu pandemic and the 2014 ebola outbreak that this measure is effective. New simulations of the outbreak from Imperial College London showed how badly hospitals would be overwhelmed should the status quo remain. See below.

The UK suddenly changed course on Monday, introducing extended social distancing measures. By Friday, the Prime Minister had ordered all pubs, restaurants, gyms, and cinemas to close. England’s schools were almost the last in Europe to close on Friday 20th March.

Weight of evidence suggests that the UK government’s approach has run counter to most expert opinion; they have been slow to take appropriate measures. That said, they now seem to be largely enacting a more coherent policy of social distancing and suspension of all but essential services.

What I’d like to figure out is: why has policy developed in this fashion?

Hypothesis 1 – Pragmatic: A whirlwind of complexity and divergent messages from numerous sources mixed with understandable panic led to confusion in the government top brass and hence a muddled, incoherent approach. In The Blunders of Our Governments, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe display how easily governments of all stripes make mistakes, even at times of relative calm.

Hypothesis 2 – Cynical: Boris Johnson’s “all time hero” is the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who believed that slavery is a natural state the superior should rule over the inferior. Dominic Cummings‘ social darwinist views are well documented, both in his own writing and his choice of “advisors”, eg. eugenicist Andrew Sabilsky. Might this have influenced policy? An opportunity for survival of the fittest to work its magic.

Hypothesis 3 – Economic: Fearing economic difficulties, the government pursued a business as usual policy to ensure minimal damage, wrongly assuming that things would “blow over”. A move to effectively curtail a self-inflicted recession.

Hypothesis 4/5 – A combination of the above, none of the above or something completely different?

International comparison

Evidence suggests that deaths from coronavirus are rising more rapidly in the UK compared with most other countries.

Why might this be? Of particular interest are South Korea and Japan, who appear to have “flattened the curve” more successfully. Why?

Take South Korea, one of the worst hit countries after China. Rates of infection have slowed significantly since the government swung into action. Reports suggest that swift implementation of a mass-scale testing regime as well as its consistent, transparent messaging to the public throughout the arc of the crisis has reaped benefits. Talking to the BBC, South Korea’s Foreign Minister stated that: “Testing is central because that leads to early detection, it minimizes further threat, and it quickly treats those found with the virus”. More than a quarter of a million have been tested. Reports suggest that South Korea’s previous experience of outbreaks has aided their cause. Their response has been widely praised for being decisive, well-resourced and effective, in contrast to a somewhat messy response in the UK.

Many of you will know that I’m currently living in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC). There’s been a significant difference between the government’s response here compared to back home. As soon as COVID-19 cases were recorded, all schools were closed, alongside bars, restaurants and local businesses. A clear, unambiguous message was calmly delivered, defining social distancing and setting time frames for re-appraisal. There has been no widespread testing here as the government simply does not have the resources; it’s a poor country. However, the approach appears to be working in regards to containment. Cases have barely increased. No panic buying or on-the-street hysteria. No empty shelves. Whilst it is certainly arguable that the culture and demographics are massively different in the UK and TRNC, might the calm, unambiguous, government response here must have played a positive role?

In sum, it is does not seem accurate to say that “everyone is behind” the UK approach. It has been far from “great” in the eyes of experts and the international community. A “dangerous shambles?” This remains to be seen.

What’s next?

Social – As a psychologist, my primary concern is around the mental health of those in isolation, particularly the most vulnerable young people and families. The British Psychological Society have released useful advice. I’ve also written about how this might be managed by schools and others here. Being able to gather, to meet in groups is a fundamental human need. We all need to take steps to ameliorate the “collective stress to our well-being” that will effect some far more than others.

Economic – Is this a time to consider reformulating our economy? More than 500 academics signed a letter asking government to introduce a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all citizens. UBI, as a concept has been around for a long time. Dutch Historian. Rutgar Bregman has written an accessible account of how UBI might be extended. Utopia For Realists traces the history of UBI and the genuine possibility of it’s widespread take-up as an alternative to predatory capitalism. Many will be unaware that Richard Nixon came close to implementing UBI in the 1970s, deterred at the last hurdle.

Vaccination – As reported by National Geographic, “vaccines create a weapons cache for a disease without the body ever having to fight off the disease itself”. Four other coronaviruses already circulate among humans but we don’t stay immune to those viruses for very long. If the novel coronavirus is similar, that means that people would need to be repeatedly vaccinated or infected for herd immunity to be sustained. Also some people, even when vaccinated, do not develop immunity. Hence, the situation around vaccination is complicated and uncertain at present.

Exclusion & youth violence: correlation vs causation

When exploring human experience in real life contexts, it is rare to find single factors that cause behaviours to occur. Researchers tend to find associations or correlations between a range of factors. 

For example, there is a very strong correlation between school exclusion and youth violence. According to The Home Office (2019), young people who have been excluded are six times more likely to carry/use a weapon than those who have not been excluded. The Ministry of Justice (2018) reported that 88% of young men and 74% of young women in prison have been excluded from school at some point. Findings are consistent, over time and across studies. In sum, being excluded from school makes it far more likely that a child will carry a knife and become involved in youth violence.

The Home Office recently found the following factors correlate most significantly with youth violence: gender (males), early puberty, maltreatment (physical, sexual, emotional abuse), parental drug use, poor relationship with parents, number of siblings, school exclusion, truancy, being a victim, feeling unsafe in home neighbourhood, feelings of isolation, risk taking tendency and self control issues. These are often called risk factors. 

Analysing correlational data is about considering how numerous social forces interact. Every child and every social context is different. The key is: school exclusion can be a hugely impactful event that exists in a chain of causality.

A typical example: a boy, currently in puberty, has experienced abuse/maltreatment, poor parental relationships, victimisation and feels unsafe in his neighbourhood. These risk factors interact and each accruing factor makes it more likely that a young person will become involved in criminality. School exclusion is a further negative experience in a chain of causality that often leads to psychological, social and emotional conditions that make this likely. It is the interaction between factors and the timing of events that is important. 

Hence, whilst exclusion and no other single factor can be shown to cause youth violence, it is hugely significant for many young people and this is why it is so highly correlated.

Knife Crime; bad eggs or collateral damage?


Sam lives in South London. Growing up, he was surrounded by domestic violence and emotional abuse. He’s a good egg with a cracking sense of humour and is truly resilient in the face of huge challenges. But he struggles. His birth father is in prison. And he views the world (and people) as threatening. Sam is constantly hyper-vigilant and has difficulty regulating his emotions, forming trusting relationships, focusing in class and conforming to school rules. Sam muddled through school until year 10, when the increased academic demand became overwhelming. He became progressively more anxious, developing a perception of himself as ‘stupid’ and ‘hyper’, eventually resulting in permanent exclusion for ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’.

We all know a Sam. Or know of a Sam. Why? Because never a day goes by without a headline accusing Sam of being a delinquent who gets excluded from school and becomes a perpetrator of knife crime.

These headlines bury the fact that Sam is also an abused, neglected, traumatised child with serious learning and language difficulties.

Social science is a complex and nuanced field; interpreting data is challenging. For example, when a young person like Sam commits a crime, it is rarely possible to show that one single event has caused this to happen. As a social scientist, it’s essential to develop an understanding of how numerous social forces interact. Psychology is, after all, the study of human behaviour. Generally, we find relationships or correlations between factors, rather than causes. There are significant correlations between youth violence and school exclusion, poverty, gang involvement, drug and alcohol abuse and other factors. But it’s rarely possible to prove that one factor is a cause in social science.

That is, unless you are Tom Bennett, Independent Behaviour Advisor to the UK Department for Education. He recently penned a letter to The Times stating: ‘it is a mistake to attribute knife crime to exclusions’, explaining the ‘obvious problem with this argument is that correlation is not causation’. Ok so far. Then Bennett goes on to suggest that whilst exclusion is not a causal factor in knife crime, ‘poverty and gang culture’ are. And so, if Mr Bennett thinks something is a cause, it is. If he doesn’t, it isn’t.

Extraordinary. Mr Bennett’s ‘analysis’ of the data is either wilfully misleading or dangerously ill-informed. A side-note: the statistical analysis about the number of exclusions that occurred from 2006-2014 is completely inaccurate.  


It’s time we stopped leaving the future of our country in the hands of ‘experts’ like Tom Bennett, and started to pay attention.

The facts

Young offenders, both in custody and in the community, are an exceptionally vulnerable group, frequently with a history of trauma, neglect, child protection intervention, social care placements, family breakdown, learning and language difficulties and school exclusion.

In ‘Transforming Youth Custody’, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) report that of 15-17 year olds in young offender institutions (prison), 88% of young men and 74% of young women had been excluded from school at some point. A later report examining the educational background of young people involved in knife offences showed that the incidence of persistent absence and school exclusions amongst those with knife offences is far greater than among all comparison groups. For example, 83% of knife possession offenders have been persistently absent from school. In contrast, across all state-funded secondary schools, in all year groups, approximately 16.5% of pupils were persistent absentees.

This study also revealed that approximately 21% of kids with knife offences have been permanently excluded, compared with 0.1% in state school generally. The MoJ reported a 50/50 split between those whose first exclusion was prior to the offence, and those who were excluded at some point after the offence.

In sum, there is a very strong relationship between school exclusion and knife crime. A core purpose of social science is to explore why links exist and what we can do to promote positive change.

‘Being excluded is painful because it threatens fundamental human needs, such as belonging and self-esteem… Again and again research has found that strong, harmful reactions are possible even when ostracized by a stranger or for a short amount of time’. Professor Kipling Williams 

Human beings are social animals; we have evolved to socialise in groups. This has an evolutionary basis as maintaining social bonds promotes survival. According to Baumeister and Leary: ‘Much of what we do is done in the service of belongingness’, which is a ‘fundamental motivation’. It is essential for us to develop (a) frequent, positive interactions with the same individuals, and (b) engaging in these interactions within a framework of long-term, stable care and concern. People who lack belongingness are at significantly greater risk of involvement in criminality.

Unsurprising then that Sam, having grown up in a scary, abusive household, constantly harbouring fears of being unwanted and worthless, goes into self-protection overdrive when almost every safe relationship and social connection he has, disappears overnight.

The pain caused by exclusion is deeper and lasts longer than a physical injury. As Baumeister and Leary explain, ‘social exclusion may be the most common and important cause of anxiety’ and ‘depression’. Also, when young people who share a range of social and economic problems form groups, they become more likely to take part in risky behaviours. They ‘substitute’ for those lost. What’s more, research shows that external threats increase the human tendency to form strong bonds.

And so Sam, totally isolated, ashamed and riddled with an all-encompassing feeling of worthlessness, found somewhere else to belong. He always was, and still is, a good egg. But it was this need for belongingness, a fundamental human need, that drove Sam to seek another community, a community that took him down a path that landed him in prison for knife crime.

Collateral Damage

Bennett and his peers demonstrate a breathtaking lack of understanding of human psychology and social science. It is worrying to observe how, despite reams of academic evidence, exclusion continues to be advocated without questioning why it is needed. School exclusion does not take place in many European nations.

Amanda Spielman (Head of Ofsted) says that exclusions and knife crime are two symptoms of the same underlying problems. This is true, but she consistently fails to recognise how Ofsted’s rigid values and obsession with results and academic learning are a key problem.

By contrast, Diane Reay (Professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Cambridge), in her furious critique of the UK education system, describes young people like Sam as ‘educational collateral damage’. It is heartbreaking to see the most vulnerable young people in society blamed for the ills of a dysfunctional system.

The vast majority of youth violence is committed by a tiny fraction of (generally male) children who have suffered adverse life experiences. Rather than punishing and ostracising vulnerable young people, we need to show them they belong, make them feel valuable and match educational opportunities to their emotional state and learning capacities.

Schools need to be empowered to support the most troubled young people. It is imperative that they have greater autonomy. Teachers, in collaboration with parents and professionals, are experts in understanding how best to support young people. They need to be resourced and incentivised to include young people like Sam, and to develop success criteria that are realistic and align with his challenges. Many schools do a phenomenal job against the odds but are hamstrung by an absurdly inflexible system, policed by Ofsted, where exam results and data are prioritised over personal flourishing.

Lord Nash (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools) says that a ‘key part of our plan for education is to ensure children become valuable and fully rounded members of society who treat others with respect and tolerance, regardless of background’. That is, unless you aren’t easily ’rounded’, in which case you are not ‘valuable’ and will be treated with ‘zero tolerance’. It is hard to think of a more ludicrous scenario.

How can Sam, and thousands of children like him, succeed in a system that enforces respect and tolerance with zero tolerance? How can young people who have experienced abuse, neglect and trauma, thrive in a system that punishes them with exclusion for simply not coping, and labels them as failures for the rest of their lives? Is this the kind of society we want?