Early intervention, mentors and spin doctors: Learning from last summer’s riots

25 January 2012

Gracia McGrath OBE is Chief Executive of Chance UK. Chance UK is an early intervention organisation that prevents crime and anti-social behaviour by matching mentors to 5-11 year old children with behavioural difficulties. The mentors deliver an intensive and individually tailored programme for each child, which builds their confidence and self esteem. Yesterday Gracia presented to a roundtable of the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel, and here she gives us her thoughts on that discussion. 

In the 6 months since the summer riots Chance UK have been asked 1000 times what the causes were, but only 3 times what solutions there are. It was with this in mind that I was delighted that the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel asked me to present at, and take part in their roundtable. I also felt that their focus on building resilience and looking for ways to develop a positive mindset was a good starting point for discussion.

As a solution-focused organisation Chance UK concentrates on how we might do things better in the future, and keep the hand wringing and navel gazing to a minimum. But I guess a little time is required to look at the causes of the riots.

From the perspective of the children we work with at Chance UK, the first thing that strikes you is the lack of aspiration in both a mental and literal sense. How do you get an idea of ‘what you want to be when you grow up’ if you don’t know anyone who works? How do you know what your city looks like, never mind what opportunities might be out there for you if you have never been outside your estate?

There has been a lot of argument on how much influence gangs played in the organisation of the riots, and nobody seems to agree on this. I think that question is not relevant. In an area where gangs are prevalent (and that encompasses all the areas where there were riots) what we see is a general erosion of acceptable behaviour, and a high tolerance of violence and criminal activity. Gang leaders may make very bad role models but what happens when they are the only ones on offer?  This makes a community more tolerant or at least more afraid to challenge what has become the status quo in some areas. They are also more likely to accept the kind of reckless violence and criminality we saw last summer.

One statistic we haven’t heard enough about is that one third of all those 10-17 year olds arrested in the riots had been permanently excluded from school in the last year. This figure may be very much higher when you look at the number of ‘unofficial’ exclusions that are now so common, as schools struggle to meet unrealistic targets.

All of these causes boil down to one thing: that people do not feel they have a stake in their own community and therefore are looking for an alternative societal or family group. Today at the roundtable I heard a number of examples of places that didn’t get looted or burned. Places like Hackney Empire, right in the firing line but so embedded in the community that rioters did not attack it.

So how do we deal with these issues in order to ensure that this does not become a regular part of our social landscape?

Firstly we need to be working with children at a very young age. We need to address issues as they start to show themselves, when it is relatively cheap (in comparison to repairing destroyed communities and paying for more prison places) and easy to do so. We need support for children in primary or secondary schools to prevent them getting excluded and losing out on all the educational opportunities others enjoy. We need support for families that are struggling and  this means not closing family centres and Sure Start programmes that have proved successful. We need to maintain services that can engage the most hard-to-reach families rather that weighing up the cost per head and deciding it is too expensive to do so.

We also need to ensure positive role models, within families and communities, are able to show children a future that includes them, and a way to access it. This has to include a move to ensure that fathers are encouraged to stay involved with their children both practically and legally. A lot has been said about positive male role models for boys, but girls also need a positive male role model and this has largely been ignored.

I know it probably isn’t popular to say it, but there are some very bright people running gangs, and if their skills of leadership and influence could be harnessed for good then we have some ready-made mentors out there. And what of mentors? Chance UK has 17 years experience of matching adult volunteer mentors with primary age children and has proved how beneficial they can be in helping a child find a more positive way of finding the attention they so desperately need. But there is a presumption that mentoring is easy, cheap and can’t really do any harm, and it is definitely none of those things. All the research shows that mentoring programmes with robust structures that are time-limited, goal-oriented with clear adherence to the model have very beneficial outcomes for the majority of children.

Finally I would like to see more positive child and youth role models represented in the media. Young people who are celebrated for educational and sporting successes, or for their engagement in their own communities. At present children and young people are represented in the media only as ‘hoodies’, gangsters and criminals. The only other young people represented are x-factor winners and soap stars and many of them are not very well behaved. Of course, all of this sells papers but we know where a concentration on that gets us! I would like to take a leaf out of Tony Blair’s book and hire ourselves a spin doctor to get good stories about children and young people in the media. It will serve to show that you don’t have to wait until you are an adult to be a good role model… Alastair Campbell, what are you up to these days?