Open Thinkering


We need to open our eyes to systemic injustice.


As a nation England is pretty good at raising money for things it deems worthwhile. So donating time and money in aid of people affected by the tsunami that hit islands in the Pacific ocean in 2004 or the earthquake and tidal wave that hit Japan earlier this year are OK. After all, goes the reasoning, that wasn’t their fault.

What we’re not so good at is rallying round when people are in need because of human agency. So fighting in Darfur or the Congo? Best avoid donating towards that. It could end up prolonging the conflict, couldn’t it? We struggle to separate the results of tragedies from their causes.

Last week’s riots in English cities were a wake-up call to middle England. There are people in this country who need our help. And not just on the level of donating a couple of pounds to homeless people, but on a systemic level. Don’t see it? Open your eyes:

I said elsewhere that I’d often wondered what happened to the 13 to 20% of kids who walk away from school with no qualifications and very limited numeracy and literacy skills. many of you assumed those are precisly the kids I used to teach, but I taught the ones who scraped through with low grades and went on to vocational courses, or who were resitting their GCSEs in the hope of doing better. Each year’s 13 to 20% largely end up on benefits or in jail or in the grey area between the two, claiming what benefits they can and supplementing that income with criminal activity. This is not a recent development; those kids at the bottom have always been there. I know the stats for the last thirteen years only because I’ve been a teacher for the last thirteen years. These kids often have virtually no social skills. By that I mean they literally cannot sit in a room and hold a conversation with someone other than those in their peer group. That doesn’t matter. They don’t have the skills to fill in a job application form, they have nothing to put on it if they did, so no one is going to sit them in a room and give them an interview, unless that someone is in a blue uniform, and they are recording the interview.

Pretty much every time I’ve been served a coffee or a sandwich or walked past someone cleaning the streets and noted they were a recent immigrant, I’ve wondered about the 13 to 20% leaving school each year and going straight onto the dole. The last government, with its bold claims of ‘an end to boom or bust’ boasted of our growing economy needing all these extra workers from abroad. Many were coming in to fill gaps in the UK labour market. We kick up to twenty percent of our kids out of school illiterate, innumerate and socially dysfunctional, then we import people to the lowgrade jobs those kids cannot do, so the immigrants can pay taxes to pay the benefits that just about keep that underclass quiet. The last government merely consolidated the neglect of the previous ones. All governments of all hues since the seventies have failed to address this problem; the only difference between them is the narrative they have fed their respective voters about it.

Rosamicula | most of the kids are alright

Unemployed people are being sent to work without pay in multinational corporations, including Tesco, Asda, Primark and Hilton Hotels, by Jobcentres and companies administering the government’s welfare reforms. Some are working for up to six months while receiving unemployment benefit of £67.50 a week or less.

The government says that unpaid work placements, which are also given in small businesses, voluntary organisations and public sector bodies, help people gain vital experience and prepare them for the workplace, but campaigners say they provide companies with free labour, undercut existing jobs and that people are “bullied” into them.

A spokesperson for the Boycott Workfare campaign said: “These placements are not designed to help people into full-time paid work but they serve to increase organisations’ profits. They provide a constant stream of free labour and suppress wages by replacing paid workers with unpaid workers. People are coerced, bullied and sanctioned into taking the placements. Placements in the public sector and charities are no better and are making volunteering compulsory. This is taking away the right of a person to sell their own labour and their free will to choose who they volunteer their time for.”

Corporate Watch | Unemployed people ‘bullied’ into unpaid work at Tesco, Primark and other multinationals

It’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle, but it’s not too late to talk about, campaign for, and act on reasonable, sustainable approaches to the disaffection and marginalisation of our young people.

Let’s open our eyes so that we can see.

The answer isn’t to respond in a reactionary way and threaten to evict the families of those involved in the rioting. That cannot help but make people more desperate and the overall situation worse. What’s needed is restorative justice to put right the wrongs that have happened recently and then to re-establish the social contract that successive governments have managed to rip to shreds.

Image CC BY-SA Dustin and Jenae

2 thoughts on “We need to open our eyes to systemic injustice.

  1. As a foreigner, coming from one of those “cuddly” Scandinavian social democracies, I probably have a grossly simplified outside –  in – view, but looking from my tree I do not see the current educational system helping this society overcome the challenges of the future. This socially divisive and test driven system leaves many youngsters squinting after disappearing tail lights in the academic sense and it leaves them feeling bad about themselves emotionally. In a situation like that it is easy to make a career out of being bad – at least one thing they can be good at. As we all know little problems are problem cheaper to fix than the big ones. This is why (and I remind you: coming from a small nation my understanding of the history and complexities of this society is rather limited)
    I see that testing the students and assessing the teachers continuously for the purpose of ensuring quality (what is quality – actually?) and for the purpose of climbing in the league tables is divisive, time consuming, expensive and in some cases devastating for the individuals, the school and ultimately the system. Where I come from we trust, we do not test. The few (voluntary) tests in different subjects are there mostly for teachers to adjust the methods, improve the efficiency of their own work when they have a chance to compare the test results (of a test written by an outside entity) of their students with others.
    Since predicting the future has always been difficult and is almost impossible today we have to be careful with the perceived future value of the “knowledge” we deliver. However, there are a couple of areas where the school cannot go wrong: Learning how to learn (n.b. I did not mention “teaching”) and increasing the students’ self esteem (i.e. image of themselves in relation to others) and self knowledge (i.e knowing their own strengths and having a realistic picture of the world) and finally learning to take responsibility of one’s own life. Responsibility is like money in the bank, an investment in the future while irresponsibility is like a loan – something to pay back later in life.
    Easier said than done, but it can be done. Multi-professional approach, prevention, early intervention and flexible support mechanisms and individual learning paths instead of pressing everyone through the same meat grinder, will be cheaper in the long run. It does not “save” everyone, but it will keep many from falling through the cracks.
    And I know I probably speak against better understanding and my view is grossly simplified – but I feel there should be an attempt to change the system. Living in London now it seems I am becoming a part of the ever increasing chorus of the barking dogs and hoping that they will eventually bite – and get noticed.  “Everyone said it could not be done – until someone did it”

    1. Thanks for your perspective, Sirkku. :-)

      A couple of things jumped out at me from your comment:

      ” In a situation like that it is easy to make a career out of being bad – at least one thing they can be good at.”


      “Where I come from we trust, we do not test.”

      A lack of trust is endemic in our society, unfortunately.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *