Patricia Lee-Sang:'We have to believe they can change'

We've heard from the politicians, but what can educators do to help prevent a repeat of this summer's troubles?

There has been a lot of heat and very little light so far in terms of what needs to be done to stop the riots happening again. While it's the Government's and the police's job to restore law and order, it's our job in families and communities to restore hope and a sense that there is a future for young people that is worth living and working for.

We believe that kids can and do change their ways and everybody deserves a second chance. Parents need advice and support to help make this happen and community-led initiatives can work where institutions fail.

One young man I know was constantly depressed and always tired. He lives in south London and his two goals in life were to be a successful rapper and to live beyond 21. He has just turned 16. He doesn't look like he eats or sleeps properly and was kicked out of school for stealing. He refused to go to a pupil referral unit and his mother thought he would be safer at home. He was out of full-time education for more than a year.

Now with tuition help, he is mastering the basic maths that he should have learnt by the end of primary school. He is also writing poetry and is motivated to take exams and go to college. He has even said that his short spell in a secure unit helped him to decide to change his life. He realises that he has to get out of the street lifestyle in which "you're born alone and die alone". Hopefully, he will get the chance to at least achieve his second life goal.

We know from watching the news and YouTube what young people who have learnt to no longer think or care about consequences are capable of doing on the streets of London and beyond.

Yet when a human rights charity bid that I worked on was submitted both to the Lottery-funded Jubilee People's Millions Fund and the Ministry of Justice to engage and train vulnerable and "at risk" girls and boys from seven high-crime boroughs in London to become youth media ambassadors (including workshops on using social media to promote personal and community safety) it was rejected and the charity hasn't the funds to continue.

Elsewhere, London Mayor, Boris Johnson, promised at a summit in August 2010 attended by key representatives from the black communi- ty, that he would deliver a mentorship scheme for 1,000 vulnerable and "at risk" young people with 1,000 mentors by the summer of this year.

This promise was repeated in community conversations that Boris led in Southwark, Haringey, Hackney, Croydon and Waltham Forest. More than 1,700 mentors have already signed up for the scheme and are still waiting for something to happen.

Rather than awarding the contract to a consortium including the children's charity Barnados, and the Tavistock Institute, experts on group and organisational behaviour, and led by specialist community-based organisations who have both the credibility and track record of delivering such a scheme, Boris hijacked the process and enlisted the University of East London and the founder of the Eastside Young Leaders Academy, which does not have a lengthy track record of delivering such a big scheme.

Such practices just add to the deep frustration of professionals within communities who want to make a difference to young people.

Lastly, six free-school bids for community-led schools of excellence and leadership for urban youth in London were rejected by the Department for Education. Supporters of these bids, myself among them, have come together and issued a joint letter to Michael Gove, requesting a meeting and asking for his department to reconsider their decisions.

We argued that as London continues to suffer rises in violent youth crime, the need for credible, effective and good-quality educational provision for underachieving youth in the inner cities is desperately acute. We wrote this before the riots – and at the time of writing have had no reply.

Depressing, isn't it? Well thought-out and innovative community-led solutions, which give a signal of hope and help to young people in need, are not being recognised nor resourced. In this, we have a lot in common with the police.

We are both front-line community professionals who have not been given the means to do our jobs properly; we are highly visible and held responsible for the failings of a few.

So what is the answer? First, we need to watch, listen to and understand the messages that children and young people are sending us. We need to be able to make distinctions between those with criminal or anarchic intent who are looting, killing and profiting from social unrest and disorder; those who don't know their left from their right and are getting themselves drawn into madness and badness and, finally, those who have legitimate cause for grievance and peaceful protest.

We need to come together as partners to analyse and assess the situation, strategically and locally. We need to plan how we finance and implement bold community-led solutions, which generate tangible results for young and local people.

We need to get around the table with the powers that be and put pressure on them to reverse short-sighted and damaging decisions which work against families and communities.

We need to see short-term wins and long-term gains in education, jobs and enfranchisement for those living on the edge of society. As events in other parts of the world teach us, it's difficult to win a war against those who have nothing to lose.

This is going to take penetrating observations, hard listening, tough talking, difficult decision-making and sustained action. But for all our sakes, we need to walk and talk solutions to the riots and to dampen the fires that led to the events of early August.

Patricia Lee-Sang is a former headteacher of an international school and former Deputy Principal Race Relations Adviser for London, who has lived and worked in Europe and Africa.She is the Director of Aspire Education Group

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