This article was first published in Newsweek and written for the American market
The orgy of violent disorder that has swept like wildfire through our cities during the last few weeks has certainly shocked teachers like me, but having said that, knowing young people as we do, I’m not sure that we’re too surprised.
But first, a definition: to understand where I’m coming from, it helps to understand the word “yob,” which is Victorian slang for “boy,” and has come to mean anyone (usually a young man) who is loutish in his behavior, whether this is in the way he talks, his verbal abuse, or in his physical aggression.
Like many secondary-school teachers, I’ve encountered my fair share of teenage yobbery. When I first started teaching in Stepney Green, east London, not far from where some of the London riots took place, the kids at the school would run up behind me and hit me on the back of the head, frequently yelling abuse or mocking me. My classes were riotous during my first years; objects were regularly thrown, abusive language was commonplace, and, during one lesson, all the furniture was pushed out of my room. At another school, the teenage boys would often fire pea-shooters at me when my back was turned; some threw pins, other put ripped cans on my chair. Vandalism, theft, and verbal threats were everyday occurrences. As teachers, we became hardened, perhaps even brutalized, by the atmosphere; either you left, or you put up with it.
During my first decade as teacher I learned that your classic yob in school looks for “special occasions” which give permission for them to be particularly foully behaved: school trips, break-times or even certain lessons. The worst behavior I’ve seen often occurs on last days of term. I’ve just published a novel, The Last Day Of Term, which depicts one of these nightmarish days; threaded through it are things I’ve seen first-hand and stories culled from colleagues. The departing pupils shoot fireworks at their teachers, causing one of them to have a heart attack, and they smash the glass façade of their shiny new school. The chief instigators are a gang, led by a charismatic leader who stirs everyone else up to cause mayhem.
This is exactly how incidents like the London riots happen: a few persuasive yobs use a particular event as justification—in this case it was the police shooting of Mark Duggan—and exhort their mates to “kick off.” These London gangs are doing on a much larger scale what they do habitually: parading their strength. A yob, as opposed to a genuine criminal, is a dramatic figure who wants to publicly show his power; he wants the TV cameras to see how great he is. That’s the whole point. Criminals, on the other hand, are secretive, because their criminality is simply a means to an end, usually money. While yobs may want to steal, that’s not their primary purpose; their ultimate pleasure is knowing that they’re feared.
Nowadays, schools are getting very adept at dealing with these characters. The school where I first was regularly physically and verbally abused as a teacher is now one of the most improved in the country. The useless head I worked for was sacked and now it’s run by a no-nonsense, hard-line teacher who doesn’t tolerate misbehavior. He and his senior management go around the school constantly with a loud megaphone and pull any miscreants out of lessons. Above all, the head finds out why these children are being so difficult. Sometimes it’s because they’re very weak academically, sometimes it’s due to poor parenting, or, with others, it’s simply that they’re a bit wild. The academically weak ones are obliged to attend “catch up” literacy and numeracy classes; the mentally disturbed are found counselors; the “naughty ones” get long detentions. No wonder the school’s results are now on a level with some of the best comprehensives in the country. These kids are exactly the same as the ones that I encountered, and when they’re outside school, trouble still occurs. In my experience, it doesn’t necessarily follow that well-educated disaffected youths are better behaved than ill-educated ones. On the contrary, the better educated your alienated teenager, the bigger the problem for society.
You could argue that their improved education has possibly made our young people savvier — and angrier. Burdened with debt, unable to enjoy the wealth of the older generations, and with poor job prospects, our “kidults”—as the seminal film about English yobs, Kidulthood, dubbed them—yearn to be famous, sexy and successful; to be the new Tinie Tempah, Plan B, or Jordan. And yet deep in their hearts, they know this is an impossible dream. As a result, our young people are alienated like no generation before them. A resident from Clapham, Jeremy Yates, says that the youths attacking his presumably well-off part of town shouted: “you are rich, we are poor” and “we rule London tonight, not you.”
My book, Yob Nation, published in 2006, which pinpointed this sort of jealous rage as being at the heart of the yob’s motivation, seems rather prophetic now. In it, I said unless British culture cured itself of “yobbery” then we could see utter chaos on the streets. I pointed out that much yobbery actually came from the top; the mainstream British media is awash with images of pornography and violence, and the rich celebrities in the U.K. parade their wealth in an obscene fashion. Even the lawmakers, our politicians, are pretty yobbish. Our former deputy prime minister, John Prescott, punched a man in the mouth, and yet didn’t lose his job. The current prime minister and the lord mayor of London were members of the notorious Bullingdon Club at Oxford, where posh knobs regularly vandalize property in drunken orgies. Furthermore, the expenses scandal showed that many MPs have their noses in the trough, indulging in all manner of excesses—pornographic films, castle moats, needless second homes—at the expense of the taxpayer.
Ironically, it’s now our schools—once awash with mayhem—which are now the best disciplined places in our society; they are the refuges for many of our young people. The school’s inspectorate, Ofsted, judges the behavior of the students to be “good or outstanding in 86% of schools”; this is certainly my experience. In the last decade or so, a tightening of standards and greater investment has made our schools much, much better. But now it’s what goes on outside school which is the worry. I was talking to some teenage pupils recently about what they do in their spare time, and I was genuinely worried by their tales of unsupervised drunkenness, drug taking, casual sex and gratuitous vandalism.
Teachers know how to deal with these yobs, but is anyone listening to them?