Violence doesn't come naturally - it is learnt

Taken from a lecture to the RSA in Bristol by George Varnava, the chairman of the BBC Secondary Advisory Committee
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The Independent Online

Violence is endemic in British society and most of us fear it. It permeates our lives, our culture and our language.

The roots of violence lie in childhood; not because violence is natural but because it is learnt; and it is largely learnt from adults. We condition children to believe that violence is an acceptable and effective means to an end. We provide them with an agenda for life that prioritises shopping, leisure and sex, and they grow up with attitudes and behaviour that reflect that early training.

Obviously, it is not only children who have suffered physical punishment or other violence who later resort to violence themselves. There are many other factors at work: poverty, neglect, abuse, media influence, commercialism and advertising, for example. Children have been systematically and successfully targeted as a vulnerable market. Many of their toys and games involve or suggest aggression and violence: you can buy weapons and combat clothing for six-year-olds. Violence has become fashionable.

If children are antisocial, we cannot blame them. Their behaviour has been influenced by following example or by their needs not being met or, more often, by being neglected.

Violence in society is a problem; but identifying that problem, acknowledging its severity and confronting it are the first stages towards a solution. Schools are well placed to help in the promotion of non-violence. They have the structures, the resources and the experience - and they also have a captive audience.

Schools have become surrogate parents and "social hospitals", ready to treat and cure the ills of society: almost literally "the cutting edge". Indeed, society's expectations of schools have exceeded those of hospitals: schools are also expected to prevent antisocial behaviour and are blamed for failure. It is a confused society that blames teachers for ignorance, the police for crime and the medical service for ill-health.

Schools are effective in demonstrating alternatives to violence and counteracting the many adverse influences to which children are subjected. Schools can make a difference, especially when supported by parents and the local community, not only in educational standards but also in personal behaviour. It is right that the political and public spotlight should be on schools. Schools are the cutting edge of society. They both reflect and serve; but there is a problem: the more responsibilities that schools accept on behalf of society, the more ready we are to off-load ours - and we expect schools to succeed.

Every school is unique, and there are as many ways for schools to achieve their aims as there are schools. They can break the cycle of violence by determined and persistent intervention, demonstrating, for example, that, since bullying is a through-life phenomenon, it is better challenged early.

If zero tolerance can be the aim in respect of litter and graffiti which violate the environment, how much more important it is to reject violence between people. To eliminate violence, we must never use it.

Herein lies another dilemma for schools. Their last effective sanction is exclusion. Teachers know that exclusion is tantamount to rejection and that rejection is psychologically damaging, keenly felt by children already in trouble and at risk. Excluded children might understandably feel like fighting back and return to break a window or send a parent to assault the head.

Schools do have to make a stand, particularly when it seems that everyone else has given up. The principle many adopt is that when the individual cannot or will not accept the requirements of the school community, then he or she no longer deserves a place there. This is a harsh punishment, but it works.

Fortunately, schools have also learnt to understand the difference between punishment and correction: if the fault can be corrected, punishment is unnecessary. Schools are places of learning; there is room for flexibility but no place for ambiguity. There can be no compromise where violence is concerned.

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