Yesterday, the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel published their final report on the causes and implications of the looting and violence that afflicted UK cities last August.
Thankfully, the report admits that there is no one single reason for the riots. Rather, it was a mixture of reasons, including low educational attainment. The report rightly argues schools and parents should be better supported, but it fails to highlight what could really boost attainment in this country: a high-quality pre-school education system.
What is particularly striking is the common characteristics of the majority of young people who were arrested: two thirds had special educational needs and truanted frequently, and only 11% had achieved five or more GCSE grades A*-C including English and Maths.
These are clearly young people who were disillusioned with education. And getting a job is very difficult to achieve without the prerequisite qualifications. If you haven’t got the passport to enter and thrive in mainstream society, little wonder you show little regard for it.
Indeed, the report noted that they were “disturbed by the feeling expressed by some rioters that they had no hope and nothing to lose”. Compare this to the attitudes of those young people, even those from deprived backgrounds, who chose not to riot: “They told us that they had a stake in society that they did not want to jeopardise”.
The key, therefore, is to raise hopes and aspirations, and to develop character and attainment. As the report comments, parents and the home environment they create is key. Schools play a critical role too. If they are failing to provide the education that gives children basic literacy and numeracy, they should be penalised. This idea of “penalty by results” – where schools have to pay for a child to reach the basic level of numeracy and literacy at another institution if they fail to do so themselves – seems sensible.
But the report is wrong to say “it starts with schools”. Education best starts – and should start – before formal schooling from aged five. This is because academic success is determined early on in a child’s life: 18 per cent of five-year-olds who score badly in ability tests will have an A-level or higher when they are aged 26, compared to nearly 60 per cent of five-years-old who score well in their ability tests.
Luckily, evidence shows that high-quality pre-school education improves the long-term academic attainment of children from the most deprived backgrounds. So government really needs to focus much more on how to improve the quality of pre-school education to boost educational attainment and, ultimately, reduce disillusionment and disengagement among young people. But how can we do that when there’s no prospect of new public money? A good start would be adopting SMF’s National Childcare Contribution Scheme.