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Riots: are we serious about dealing with underlying causes before next eruption?

The report on the riots published by the Riots Communities and Victims Panel is a welcome alternative to the establishment’s atavistic call for revenge in the days and weeks after August last year. It is right to demand that everyone should have a stake in society and at least half a million ‘forgotten families’ who ‘bump along the bottom’ don’t. It is right too to demand that schools that fail to teach children to read properly should be penalised, that more should be done to get young people into work, and that schools should concentrate on developing character. All estimable aspirations. But is there the will to push through radical reform, and anyway are these prescriptions nearly enough?

If we are serious about bringing an ‘under-class’ into the rest of society, Britain would do well to learn the lessons of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) project. Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the project, noted that the latest research on the brain showed that much of a child’s capacity to think and learn was set in the first 3 years of life. Canada ambitiously sought to reverse at root the differential between poor and middle class children by an intensive programme starting before birth, with parenting classes transforming adults’ approach to their babies, and continuing until after college. It involved pre-kindergartens, tutoring, dance and sport classes, food co-ops, social service, and housing and health aid, with every child in the zone being offered support.

At a total cost of $5,000 a child per year HCZ produced revolutionary results. Withe the schools’ intake random and very deprived – 10% of the children lived in homeless shelters or foster care – a Harvard University evaluation of the project found that the combination of community transformation, high-quality teaching and parental support was “enormously effective at raising the achievement level of the poorest minority children”. Previously just 7% of black 14 year olds passed their grade in maths, but HCZ staggeringly produced 97% of eighth-graders performing at or above grade level.

The Harvard study concluded that HCZ vastly exceeded the effects of all other initiatives like lowering class size, offering bonuses for teachers in tough schools, or running classic early childhood programmes like Head Start. The key lesson from HCZ is that the breakthrough overcoming entrenched class (and racial) barriers requires systematically raising the aspirations of the whole community simultaneously so that going to college and avoiding drugs or teenage pregnancy becomes normal behaviour.

If we’re really serious about giving everyone a genuine stake in society, HCZ offers a hope like no other route. Are we prepared to test it in some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the UK, perhaps some where the riots struck hardest like Hackney?

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