Monday, 25 February 2013

Relaxed approach to 'development' may resolve dispute over what's best for young children

I'm often frustrated by the polarised arguments over what is best for children, as they tend to avoid the frequent shared ground in order to make their case. Most recently, an article in The Telegraph about the loss of 'family time' as group childcare becomes the preferred norm elicited a blog response from Voice, the union for education professionals, justifying the status quo. I have a lot of sympathy with the concern that children's informal family lives seem to be valued less than their time in formal care, but I also have sympathy with the people who give enormous daily commitment in their work with children in early years settings.

So I've tried to bear both in mind in a response to the Voice blog post which offers a suggestion that a less anxious approach to young children might serve everybody's best interests. That old obsession with 'school readiness' is the real problem here.

Here's the text of my response, which of course appears at the bottom of the Voice blog post.

I am a sociologist carrying out PhD research into the difficult feelings and behaviour of 3- and 4-year-olds at nursery or in reception. I’m particularly interested in those children who don’t seem to be coping, either with their emotions or with the rules of conduct that are expected of them, and how bigger things than personality, individual development, family circumstances or the practice in a specific setting may be contributing to these. Those ‘bigger things’ might include the curriculum, deep social inequalities, employment policy, low social worth ascribed to stay-at-home parents, social perception of young children … I could go on. 

I’m only mid-way through my research, so a long way from any meaningful analysis. However, I do think that part of the problem for some of the young children I’m observing is, indeed, the over-formalisation of their experiences, especially their being in busy environments for long periods of time where their every interaction is potentially the subject for measurement. In this, I guess I would agree with what Sue Palmer says in the Telegraph article, although I’m less interested in what it means for children’s long-term learning and development than in what it means for them as people right now. It’s also very important to remember that ‘family time’ is appallingly complicated for some, and that experiences in different environments can have enormous benefits for both children and their close family members.

In a way, I think that the polarised difference between the concerns expressed in the Telegraph article, and your wish to defend childcare is the real problem, because it reveals how children’s lives are controlled by adults’ differing beliefs and the political pressures, professional insecurities and hard economic difficulties that they experience. Perhaps the polar arguments here might find some common ground in the recognition that early years practitioners may also have been over-formalised. They, too, are in these sometimes overwhelmingly busy environments for long periods of time and are themselves measured at every turn. I’ve seen how the requirement to observe all aspects of children’s development and to enable children’s independence as early as possible – to say nothing of the obligation to deal with the immediate needs and requests of lots of children all at the same time – can create a near-impossible tension between the personal, tender care that practitioners might want to offer each child and the reality of what they can physically do without exploding. The formality that emphasises children’s readiness for school at age 5 rather than their emerging human capacities seems to be a key aspect of this problem. Perhaps the drive to get parents into work would have more reliably positive benefits for everybody if the curriculum could just stop being so darned anxious about the future so that children and their caring practitioners could enjoy more relaxed periods of play and leisure together – and preferably in smaller settings (though I know that’s problematic). 

Under those circumstances, perhaps both those who worry about lack of family time and those who see the benefits of group care might find that they agree with each other more readily.

Friday, 15 February 2013

'England and Wales spend 11 times more on locking children up than on preventing youth crime' says the Guardian article, 'James Bulger killing: 20 years on', as it reflects on how the demonising of children has become a habit in the UK, and how public display of their punishment is used by politicians and the media for their own purposes.

I've said it elsewhere, but I'll say it again ... In the UK, children can be held legally responsible for a crime at the age of 10. This is lower than anywhere else in the 47-state Council of Europe (see the map on page 51 of this Council of Europe document) - apart from Switzerland, where it is the same. And yet British children are not granted legal responsibility over any other aspect of their lives for some years beyond that age. They may not leave home until they are 16, they may not legally consent to or refuse medical treatment until 16, they may not refuse to attend school or other training until 16 (this is soon to rise to 18) and they may not undertake any kind of work until they are 13. The minimum wage for a 16/17-year-old is only 60% of that for adults, reflecting the assumption that young people remain at least partly dependent until age 18.

I'm not suggesting that we legislate to give 10 year olds the power to make all these decisions - though I don't necessarily rule it out; you only have to look at the extraordinary capabilities of children who care for their family members at this age and younger to know how much more they can take responsibility for. But I do think we must recognise, right now, the shocking double standard that we hold when we allow children to take legal responsibility only for their crimes at age 10.

It's time to raise this age limit and to end the habit of demonising children.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Petitions against new adult:child ratios in UK childcare

Last month, the UK government published its plans for the care of young children in a report named, with blatant spin, More Great Childcare: Raising quality and giving parents more choice. In it, the government announced the introduction of a new early years teacher qualification, equal to that held by teachers in schools. This is a professional status that has been long sought by people working in the early years sector. But the payoff has been met with horror, for the government (sorely short of cash right now), has equated 'more qualified' with 'able to juggle more children' and announced a simultaneous change to the adult:child ratios allowed by law in early years settings so that each adult will be responsible for more children - and less able to spend unhassled time in a thoughtful relationship with each one. Ratios for childminders are also to change, and while these dedicated carers are resisting the loss of intimacy that this change will bring about, most will have to take on more children if they are to carry on working.

Because they'll soon become too expensive if they don't.

The professional horror I mentioned has spawned a couple of petitions to the government, and I think they're really worth signing. Nursery World, the magazine for the early years in England, has more background on the problem and here are links to petition 1 and petition 2 (you can also find them at the bottom of the Nursery World article). I wrote the following message of support when I signed the petitions. Happy signing!

'Children are not commodities, and market forces have no place in decisions about what young children need in order to flourish. The adult:child ratios we have now represent an understanding that proper relationships with people who have time for them are what matter to children under 5, and that these relationships are what enable children to remain confident as they grow. But even the current ratios do not ensure that adults are able to give children the attention they need, especially in very large settings and where lots of children find it difficult to cope. Reducing the number of adults will only make that worse. Meanwhile, children who now thrive in close relationships with their childminder and the few other children in that family-style setting risk the loss of reliable warmth as their carer is forced to offer time to more children in order to make the service competitive. Dealing with global financial difficulties is a vast challenge, but it is ignorant and woefully short-sighted to disregard young children's best interests in the attempt to find a solution to the crisis.'

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Bereavement leave on death of child - sign petition

When you have a baby in the UK, you can take a full year off work. When your child dies, the standard compassionate leave offered is just three days. I'm sure that many employers and managers would act with their own personal compassion and offer longer leave in individual cases, but fear that many others would not. That leaves bereaved parents in a terribly vulnerable position, so I've just signed a petition calling for a change. The petition's introductory text appears below. Go here to sign it.

'In August 2010 my son died tragically at the age of 23 months. It was at that time I realised every company has their own Bereavement Policy and 3 days off work seems to be the norm also one of those days has to be the funeral. You are entitled to sick leave or you can take holiday entitlement from your employer but you shouldn't have to use sick or holiday leave.
I want the Governement to reveiw this as at the moment they state companies should give a 'Reasonable Amount of Time'.
No time can be put on Grief, but 3 days is NOT reasonable. You have up to 12 months off for the birth of a child and 3 days off for the DEATH of a Child.
So please sign my petition and help me enable to bring this to our governments attention and hopefully in the future CHANGE will happen...'

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Citizens Today ‒ Do children have a right to vote in UK elections?

(Academic article written November 2006 for MA in Childhood Studies at the Institute of Education, London. Peer reviewed in the sense that it received a distinction from course markers Professor Priscilla Alderson and Dr Virginia Morrow and the mark was ratified by the Institute, but not officially cleared for publication - hence its appearance in my blog rather than somewhere more academically kosher. Excuse eccentric paragraph spacing - Blogger doesn't like text imported from Word.)

On 7 June 2001, a mere 59% of the UK’s registered voters took part in the general election that would return New Labour for a second term (Electoral Commission 2003). It was the lowest voter turnout recorded for a general election since 1918, with lack of interest particularly marked among young voters. At just 39% the turnout among 18 to 24 year olds set off alarm bells about the future for democracy in the UK and inspired some urgent research and consultation aimed at re-engaging young people’s interest in civic life.

The government’s research with young people – the YVote?/YNot? project – covered a broad range of issues, including young people’s own views of politics and politicians, their political activities and the quality of information available to them about engaging in the democratic process (CYPU 2002). It invited ideas for how to improve young people’s involvement in our democracy and, in response to a recommendation that arguments for lowering the voting age should be seriously considered, the project report suggested that the independent Electoral Commission might wish to investigate further. Duly, the Electoral Commission ran a broad consultation on the issue, called How old is old enough? (Electoral Commission 2003). It reported that the majority of responses to the consultation were in favour of lowering the minimum voting age to 16, but that a separate ICM poll – conducted to cancel out the ‘self-selecting’ bias of consultation respondents – had shown that most people preferred to maintain the status quo (Electoral Commission 2004). With ‘no significant or even consistent majority of young people calling for the right to vote’, the Commission concluded that there was not ‘a sufficiently strong argument that change now would affect the level of political engagement between young people and the political process’ (Electoral Commission 2004: 61). It recommended that the minimum voting age in UK elections should remain at 18, for now at least.

In considering the experience of young people in the UK, both consultations asked important questions about how to engage young British people in the democratic process, some of which will be raised in this essay. But is it really enough to ponder over young people’s interest in politics? In a consultation about whether to extend the vote to a disenfranchised group, is it sufficient to examine how their access to the democratic process can be made more vibrant, more relevant and more reliable? Critically, should we be satisfied by a public debate about children’s involvement in democracy which is triggered by concern over the low level of voter participation? When John Stuart Mill called for the vote to be extended to women in 1869, he was not interested in drawing more voters to the polling stations; he spoke of women’s subjection in society at the hands of men, of their right to protect themselves against it and their intellectual capacity to do so (Mill 2006).

This essay seeks to turn the debate for lowering the voting age in the UK away from structural concerns about delivery of the democratic process, and towards a deeper investigation of the perception of children in society and the nature of their citizenship. It will start by looking at the notion of citizenship and what it means to have the vote. It will then analyse the extent to which children are, and should be acknowledged as, citizens in the UK before considering their right to the vote.

What is a citizen?
Despite the bald definition for the word ‘citizen’ given in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, as being either ‘a legally recognized subject or national of a state or commonwealth’, discussions about the meaning of citizenship agree that a citizen in a democracy is more than this. A democratic citizen is someone who takes part in the decision-making of the state or commonwealth in which they are a recognised subject – and a citizen’s right to vote is key. ‘In a democracy,’ says David Archard (2004: 98), ‘suffrage is the mark of citizenship. A citizen is someone who participates in the government of their society and, where that government is democratic, does so by casting votes in elections’. Ennew (2000: 1) questions the relevance of ideas about full citizenship to children’s citizenship status, but she does not question that these perceptions exist nor that they link full citizenship to personal autonomy, with characteristics that include economic responsibility such as employment and entering into contracts, and social responsibilities such as getting married without parental permission. Ahead of all these defining qualities, she lists the right to vote.

And yet, while the vote clearly has great symbolic power, its instrumental value for individual citizens is severely limited, as the meaning of a single vote disappears among the many thousands that either concur or disagree with it. Even when the outcome of an election positively reflects a citizen’s vote, there is no guarantee that the resulting administration will use the power delegated by that voter in the manner intended. So why does the vote matter so much?

It matters precisely because it is symbolic. Political status is generally seen to be conferred on those who have the franchise, and withheld from those who do not. The very term ‘disenfranchised’ implies much more than being deprived of the vote. It is used in everyday speech to describe the experience of being on the outside: of having no say, of not being listened to – of not being heard. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary explains that it also means being ‘deprived of a right or privilege’. And it is important to remember that privilege remains inherent in the decisions made by society about who should have access to the vote. It points to the divisiveness at the very heart of the original concept of democracy, in which only free-born ancient Greek men were citizens, and signals the inequality which continues today wherever there is a dividing line between those who may and those who may not vote. Simplistically (and also highly symbolically), this is a line between those people whose expressed views must be taken into account, and those people whose views can be disregarded.

In the UK today, the firmest dividing line is that which separates everyone who is over 18 years from everyone who is not. Denial of citizenship rights to children, as Michael Freeman points out, ‘means they are not active agents and their interests can easily be ignored’, but lowering the minimum voting age would, in his view, have a ‘symbolic importance in directing the attention of politicians to the lives and interests of children and in putting children on to the political agenda’ (Freeman 2000: 287 and 288). This being the case, the extension of a symbolic power to children could have a genuine impact on the real power wielded by politicians.

But if the franchise were to be extended to British children, would it confer a citizenship status that they do not currently have, or would it be confirmation that they are already citizens?

Are children citizens?
The question of whether or not children are citizens is, of course, intimately associated with how citizenship is conceived. By the Compact Oxford English Dictionary definition in which a citizen is a ‘legally recognized subject or national’, British children – who have the right to a passport from birth as a mark of their individual nationality – are most certainly UK citizens. But if, as is widely believed, citizenship is conferred only on those who can vote and who shoulder responsibilities which require autonomous decision-making (Ennew 2000), then children in the UK are not regarded as citizens – or at least not as full citizens.

There is another definition that muddies the water still further. The Advisory Group on Citizenship, which culminated in the Crick Report on citizenship education in schools (QCA 1998), stressed the importance of what it called the ‘good’ or ‘active’ citizen. This understanding of citizenship encompasses the social definitions identified by Ennew (2000) but places greater emphasis on civic responsibilities such as volunteering as the defining acts of citizens. According to the report, such acts embody the reciprocity between citizens’ rights and duties which, along with a need to be politically literate, is necessary for individuals to behave as active citizens (QCA 1998: 10). The report is comfortable with passing a many-layered judgement on children’s political literacy – many school leavers, it says, have only the ‘basic’ understanding that can be achieved by ‘well-taught primary school pupils’ (QCA 1998: 15) – but it shies away from discussing the duties that children already carry out and the rights they imply. In so doing, it avoids the issue of reciprocity between children’s existing duties and rights and so neglects to undertake a proper consideration of their status as the active citizens it seeks to create. Lockyer criticises the report for ambiguity in this regard when he notes that, while it refers to ‘pupils as active citizens’, it also discusses preparing them to ‘becomeactive citizens’ (2003: 121 and 122, my italics). Analysing the report in its entirety, he judges the latter mode to be dominant, with the implication that ‘during their school years young people are not yet “fully citizens”, either by function or entitlement’ (2003: 122).

So the Crick Report judges that children require specific forms of education in order to become full citizens, and this judgement on their status has influenced the direction of citizenship education in the UK. The report recommends a programme to provide knowledge and experience of three inter-linked areas – social responsibility, community involvement and political literacy – and these three strands underpin the curriculum that is being taught today. If children are seen by the Crick Report to require targeted education in these three aspects, it follows that they are deemed by the report to lack the associated knowledge and experience. According to this reasoning, children are excluded from full citizenship status by their lack of experience as well as by their lack of autonomy and crucial lack of the vote. But while the exclusion of children from the vote is currently a matter of fact, their lack of personal autonomy is a matter of interpretation, as is their lack of experience regarding social responsibility, community involvement and political understanding.

Children and social responsibility
It is certainly true that most children – at least most of those under 16 – have little or no access to autonomous decision-making with regard to the economic responsibilities that Ennew indentifies in the conventional understanding of citizenship status (2000). It is also true that the UK does not permit children under 18 to make fully independent decisions on some social responsibilities such as getting married. However, where it suits society to do so, children are enabled to take on social responsibilities that are more usually judged the work of adults. The How old is old enough? consultation document quotes Department of Health estimates of there being ‘between 19,000 and 51,000 young carers in England alone’, carrying out ‘domestic and caring responsibilities above and beyond normal household tasks’ (Electoral Commission 2003: 13), while Underdown (2002: 57) suggests that even the number of 51,000 ‘underestimates what is still essentially a concealed population’. Child carers can be very young – there is no legal minimum age – and may have significant responsibilities for a sibling or, at the furthest extreme, act as sole carer for a parent. Some cope alone with a parent’s drug or alcohol abuse, others with a loved one’s disability or mental illness. In doing so they carry out a civic responsibility by relieving the state of some expense in health and social care costs, while continuing at school (a social responsibility which all children undertake and which contributes to their future economic independence). In this position, many young carers make significant autonomous decisions regarding emergency healthcare as well as daily choices about feeding, dressing and heating. Some also work to supplement household income. Yet while they cope with significant social responsibility, the skills they acquire remain hidden. Many young carers report being isolated and in need of recognition so that flexible solutions can be agreed with schools and social services (Underdown 2002). They take on significant duties and yet, because they have not reached the statutory age of majority – because they do not have the vote and so are unable to force their concerns on to the political agenda – they are not properly acknowledged. As their responsibilities are overlooked so are their rights and, according to their own reports, they do not receive the kind of state support that exists for their adult citizen peers.

The reality of daily life for lone young carers highlights the extent of what children can do when responsibility is delegated to them. But their experience is still relatively uncommon. More instructive are the widespread responsibilities taken on by the vast majority of Underdown’s ‘concealed population’ of carers: children across the country who contribute to their families through part-time work or by sharing the care of themselves, siblings or other family members. Economic, social and civic responsibilities such as these are often shouldered by young people from disadvantaged backgrounds whose very classification as ‘socially excluded’ marks them out as more disenfranchised than other children and less likely to be regarded as having the qualities for full citizenship. This judgement is borne out by their experiences in early adulthood, when informal decision-making skills acquired during childhood are ignored by potential employers (Barry 2005) and disillusion sets in among those who, having received little help with childhood responsibilities, see no benefit in continuing with them as adults (Bentley et al. 1999).

While there are, of course, significant numbers of children and young people in the UK who do not undertake ‘domestic and caring responsibilities above and beyond normal household tasks’, the trenchant view of children as incompetent feeds an assumption that they are incapable of shouldering such responsibilities – leaving those young people who do take them on without proper support. There can be no reciprocal relationship between the duties fulfilled by these children and the rights accrued by them, as neither duties nor rights are acknowledged, so under the Crick Report’s own terms they are being barred from active citizenshhip. A paradoxical situation, indeed. If these problems exist in the Crick Report’s implication that children require education in order to take on social responsibility, what of the two remaining strands in the citizenship curriculum?

Children and community involvement
According to the 2004 Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study – a survey of more than 500 teachers and over 6,000 students – citizenship education in the UK is delivered mainly through traditional classroom techniques (Cleaver et al. 2005). According to the survey, many schools attempt to breathe life into those classes by offering the opportunity for students to volunteer in the local community, while school councils give them access to a democratic school ethos. The authors seemed encouraged by these findings, although the report goes on to recommend that students should be involved ‘more fully in the running of schools, beyond school councils, and in negotiation of their teaching and learning experiences’ (Cleaver et al. 2005: vi).

Evidence of genuine involvement along these lines exists in some European countries where schools are legally bound to involve pupils in key decisions (Davies and Kirkpatrick 2000). In Sweden, this includes a statutory obligation for schools to involve children in curriculum planning, while in Danish schools children are invited to assess the quality of their teaching. There are no such legal structures supporting children’s active involvement in UK schools and, as Alderson (2000) points out, the Crick Report did not take the opportunity to propose involvement in the school community as a method of delivering the citizenship curriculum. Instead, it emphasised the use of formal classroom methods, and the findings of Cleaver et al. (2005) indicate that this comfortable recommendation was taken up.

Democratic school councils are a significant part of the legal structures in those European schools surveyed by Davies and Kirkpatrick (2000). In the UK, Cleaver et al. (2005) are satisfied simply by the prevalence of school councils, but they make no reference to Alderson’s (2000) research which concluded that they are far from universally democratic. Even where they are run along good democratic principles – views of the student body properly canvassed, recommendations of the council taken seriously – the experience of sitting on the council is had by just a few. Decision-making power ends for most students when they elect their representative: an effective simulation of what it means to have the vote, perhaps, but limited experience of active community involvement. Barriers to children’s community involvement are compounded by the fact that not all schools offer students the opportunity to volunteer in the local community and, where they do, not all students take up the option. On several counts it seems fair to suggest that, despite the enthusiasm expressed by Cleaver et al., the citizenship curriculum fails to offer children access to genuine community involvement and so falls short of its duty to provide the relevant knowledge and understanding.

Despite inadequate school-based education in this field, many young people gain knowledge and experience of community involvement. Research with 110 young people in Leicester into their perceptions of citizenship found that the ‘great majority’ had been involved in some kind of constructive community participation (Listeret al. 2005). Drawn from a variety of social groups, these 16 to 23 year olds had engaged in a range of activities including formal voluntary work, altruistic acts (such as giving blood) and reciprocal neighbourliness. Of course, this study was carried out with a relatively small number of older teenage and young adult participants in a specific area of the country so cannot be said to represent all children and young people in the UK. However, that the ‘great majority’ of just 110 participants from a variety of social backgrounds should be actively involved in their community suggests young people elsewhere in the UK may be similarly involved. Even if this were not the case, the research demonstrates that a very significant level of community involvement existed among these 110 young people. They did not require education in order to become active citizens through community involvement; they were being active citizens in this way.

Children and political literacy
It would be foolhardy to suggest that young people in the UK have a strong grasp of the political process, as they have openly said the opposite. Research carried out both before and after the 2001 election revealed that young people feel alienated from mainstream politics. The YVote?/YNot? project questioned over 1,000 young people aged 14 to 19 and gave them the opportunity to make suggestions for how they might be drawn into the political landscape (CYPU 2002). Those very recommendations – that politicians should ‘talk to us in language we understand’, ‘talk to us directly, regularly, and in our environments’, ‘listen and respond to our concerns’ – point to the ways in which they feel distanced from mainstream politics. Crucially, they asked the government and the Electoral Commission to ‘give us the information and understanding we need’ in order to know how to use the vote once they have it (CYPU 2002: 8). These views concur with earlier research carried out with 14 to 24 year olds from a range of social and cultural backgrounds (White et al. 2000). Although a few of these 193 interviewees had a high level of commitment to politics, two-thirds reported a lack of interest and said that they found it boring, dull or serious. When asked about the barriers to their participation, they mentioned the limited opportunities to participate in politics, the difficulty they encountered in being heard and their lack of knowledge about the political process.

These responses suggest that even young people who are approaching, or past, the age of statutory adulthood, do not feel involved in the political process as full citizens. Without adequate information about that process or the opportunity to experience truly democratic activities, it is hardly surprising that many of the young people interviewed by White et al. (2000) had little interest in it or that the majority involved in theYVote?/YNot? project felt that new strategies were needed to help them gain a level of political literacy that would make them viable active citizens under the Crick Report’s definitions. The citizenship education inspired by that report appeared in UK schools after both the cited pieces of research were carried out and was intended to help fill the information gap which clearly existed prior to its introduction. But it is demonstrably failing to do so. In the 2004 Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study, the least-taught subjects were voting, elections, parliament and governance (Cleaver et al. 2005), while Ofsted recently admitted that the national curriculum was ambiguous in relation to the workings of government and the electoral system (Ofsted 2006).

Despite being effectively excluded from learning about politics by the political establishment and by patchy education in the political process, many children are involved in political action while others are more conversant with the principles and processes of democracy than they might realise. Some of the young people interviewed by White et al. (2000: 17) who were identified as being interested in politics said that their interest was activated by ‘joining a society, joining a youth forum or school council, or embarking on a campaign in support of a particular issue’. While the question posed did not ask about young people’s political understanding, it reveals a level of participation in informal politics that would encourage their political literacy – at least in relation to their given field of interest. The report into the YVote?/YNot? project confirms this kind of involvement, saying that research evidence suggests ‘young people are open to non-traditional forms of involvement in civic life such as petition signing, taking part in boycotts, campaigning on local issues, carrying out charitable/voluntary activities and joining campaigning groups’ (CYPU 2002: 17). The same research also reveals a sense of responsibility towards the vote, pointing to an awareness of its meaning in a democracy. More than half of the 1,000 young people questioned believed that you should only vote if you ‘care who wins’, while most of the 110 young people questioned by Lister et al. (2005) felt it was more irresponsible to vote in ignorance than not to vote at all.

This is hardly proof that children and young people are politically literate but it does imply that, given more opportunity to learn about political processes and more experience of democracy, they might be able to demonstrate their active citizenship in this sphere. Extending the franchise to children would activate the need to inform them properly about democracy and the political process. It would also contribute towards a recognition that children are already being citizens in many ways, that more have the potential to do so and that all require the proper support with which to continue their active citizenship. Despite this positive potential impact on the lives that children are already living, the vote continues to be denied them. So what reasons are given for their continued exclusion? How can those reasons be challenged and, most important of all, do children have a right to the vote?

Children’s right to vote in the UK
Article 12 of the UN Convention is the key statement on children’s participatory rights. It says that children have a right to express their views ‘freely in all matters affecting them’, but qualifies this freedom. The right to express views freely is held only by a child ‘who is capable of forming his or her own views’, and these views are given due weight ‘in accordance with the age and maturity of the child’. Michael Freeman (2000) suggests there are improvements to be made in the wording of Article 12, but he does not question these particular points. This highlights the problem that terms such as ‘capability’ and ‘maturity’ are open to interpretation.

For those people who are interested in the evidence of children’s competence, their maturity and their capability to form personal views are not governed by age. For example, Alderson’s (1993) research with 120 children aged 8 to 15 who faced painful ongoing surgery found that their competence to consent to more surgery was linked to their experience of the treatment so far, not to their age.

But those people who wish to see maturity as something bestowed by age call upon it as a reason for withholding the vote from anyone under 18. In its deliberation over whether to lower the voting age to 16, the Electoral Commission’s consultation report eventually decided that received wisdom on young people’s maturity should hold sway on the issue. Having stated that social responsibility is a key definer for maturity and then cited evidence of young people displaying such maturity, the report’s concluding discussion of how to judge whether 16 and 17 year olds are ‘sufficiently’ mature to vote rested not on the evidence presented, but on ‘the broad views of society as a whole’ (Electoral Commission 2004: 25). The Electoral Commission effectively bowed to popular opinion, allowing the convention that young people are incompetent and immature to trump the empirical evidence.

In a more balanced approach, the commission might have used their own examples of young people’s maturity as a jumping-off point for looking into further evidence of children’s competence. While Alderson’s work on the competence of children in a medical environment may not have been understood by the Electoral Commission as directly related to their potential competence as voting citizens, there is plenty of evidence for that potential in the research cited throughout this essay. There are also examples of competence that children have shown in parliamentary contexts, such as the working children in Rajasthan, India, who attend night schools and all vote to elect their representatives for a Children’s Parliament which has the power not only to govern those schools but also to influence decisions that affect the whole community (John 2003). And in Slovenia, representatives to the Children’s Parliament are elected through a democratic process that begins with representation in schools, extends to local planning and convenes to discuss issues with the elected national government (Pavlovic 1996). This is a very different institution from the UK Youth Parliament which meets in a vacuum and, in 2006, received a flying visit from the Education Minister who used it as an opportunity to make a speech defending exam results rather than to hear the views of young people in the conference hall. Instead, according to Pavlovic’s account of the early years of the Slovenian Children’s Parliament, children’s views were actively canvassed and listened to by government ministers, and the uncomfortable points they made about powerlessness – through their angry mode of expression as well as what they said – were welcomed and acted upon in such a way as to encourage the young people’s increasingly constructive suggestions for change. The parliament continues to this day.

Of course, the experience of working children in Rajasthan is not the same as the experience of children in the UK. And it is important to take care when holding up the Slovenian government for praise on the issue of children’s participation, given that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child had recommendations for change related to participation in its concluding observations to Slovenia’s most recent periodic report (UNCRC 2004). What both examples do provide is evidence that, with the respect and partnership of adults, children can and do make competent, mature political decisions. The Children’s Parliament in Rajasthan was established by adult social workers as a tool for educating children about politics and political processes, but because decisions made by the elected child representatives were acted upon – including the firing of inadequate (adult) teachers – the power invested in the children was fully embraced and carefully exploited by them. Meanwhile, in Slovenia, the acceptance of the children’s early anger as valid comment by politicians with national decision-making power was taken as a cue by the children that they were no longer powerless: it was worth their while to fully engage with the parliament, to offer constructive ideas and to take responsibility for change in their own milieus.
In these examples, four key elements in adult behaviour and opinion served to swing the balance of power towards the children involved and to give them a genuine role in democratic decision-making. These were:
  • the initial adult impetus to educate, consult and involve young people
  • a continuing partnership between adults and children
  • consistent respect for the children’s competence in a political arena
  • the fundamental belief in the children’s right to a meaningful voice.
In the UK, where the Electoral Commission’s recommendation to deny the vote to 16 and 17 year olds was based on ‘broad views’ that children are not mature enough to make political decisions, there is clearly no widespread respect for children’s competence in the political arena, and so no corresponding desire to set the ball rolling on their involvement or to work in partnership with them. Put more plainly, the UK does not currently believe that children have a right to vote in parliamentary and local elections. With just a two-year reduction to the minimum voting age causing such trouble, we are clearly a conceptual universe away from the ideal expressed by child liberationist, John Holt (1974), who said that all children – from birth – should have the vote. He regarded the right to vote as a matter of simple justice, in which anyone affected by decisions should have the right to a say in them. As children were, in his view, more likely to be affected by government decisions than anyone else, he believed they should accordingly have the opportunity to influence them.

If this view is so completely beyond the reach of opinion and practice today, where does this leave children’s right to vote in UK elections? Does it matter that their current and potential active citizenship is not given an outlet at the ballot box? The simple answer is: yes, it does matter. It matters that children have no say in directing policies that affect them, it matters that they take on responsibilities for which they are not credited and in which they are not supported, and it matters – both symbolically and actually – that elected governments do not need to take notice of their experiences and opinions. Enfranchisement seems the only way to change that situation. Having the vote may not be a perfect system for granting power to individuals in a democracy but, as Pavlovic (1996) says, ‘a better system is still to be invented’. And so children must have the right to vote in the UK. The process towards enfranchising them should start immediately with 16 and 17 year olds who, in law, already have access to ‘adult’ responsibilities such as taking on full-time work and starting a family.

There would, of course, remain a chasm between any acknowledgement that 16 year olds should have the vote and the right of younger children to do so – not least because extending the vote to 16 year olds is already on the agenda and now a matter of fact in the Isle of Man. Enfranchisement of children younger than 16 would require an understanding among adults of their own responsibility to create the kind of supportive, respectful and enabling environment for children’s active citizenship shown in Rajasthan and Slovenia. And it would require a commitment to do so across all levels of society – not just in schools and not just as part of a citizenship curriculum. However, with the removal of 18 as the incontrovertible age of maturity, the UK could begin a journey that would enable and embrace all teenagers and perhaps eventually younger children as full democratic citizens in which their lived experience and views were respected as equally valid as those of adults for policy-making, and in which they were granted the vote. A new conceptual universe, indeed. A social revolution.

One hundred and thirty years ago, John Stuart Mill campaigned for the right of women to be consulted through the ballot box. While we now take this right for granted, there was deep opposition at the time to the idea that women should involve themselves in public matters and that they could have the necessary competence to cast their vote (Harrison 1978). Mill challenged the preconceptions of his time and contributed to a social revolution which eventually saw women not only get the vote but also stand for and be elected to parliament. His view of children’s position in society, however, was entirely in keeping with the age. They belonged in the family which was, for them, ‘a school of obedience’ and of ‘command for the parents’ (Mill 2006: 42). While we may no longer adhere fully to the concept of children’s ‘obedience’ to their parents’ ‘command’, their potential contribution in the public sphere will not be fulfilled until their existing acts of citizenship are recognised and their rights to autonomous participation as competent citizens are taken seriously.

Alderson, P. (1993) Children’s consent to surgery. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Alderson, P. (2000) School students’ views on school councils and daily life at school. Children and Society, 14 (2), 121–34.

Archard, D. (2004) Children’s rights to vote and sexual choice. In Children: rights and childhood, 2nd edn. London: Routledge, chapter 7.

Barry, M. (2005) The inclusive illusion of youth transitions. In M. Barry (ed.) Youth policy and social inclusion: critical debates with young people. London: Routledge, 97–116.

Bentley, T. and Oakley, K. with Gibson, S. and Kilgour, K. (1999) The real deal: what young people really think about government, politics and social exclusion. London: Demos.

Cleaver, E., Ireland, E., Kerr, D. and Lopes, J. (2005) Listening to young people: citizenship education in England,Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study: second cross-sectional survey 2004. London: National Federation for Educational Research and Department for Education and Skills.

CYPU (2002) Young people and politics: a report on the YVote?/YNot? project. London: Children and Young People’s Unit.

Davies, L. and Kirkpatrick, G. (2000) The Euridem Project: a review of pupil democracy in Europe. London: Children’s Rights Alliance for England.

Electoral Commission (2003) How old is old enough?: the minimum age of voting and candidacy in UK elections. London: The Electoral Commission.

Electoral Commission (2004) Age of electoral majority: report and recommendations. London: The Electoral Commission.

Ennew, J. (2000) How can we define citizenship in childhood? Harvard Centre for Population and Development Studies, working paper series, 10 (12).

Freeman, M. (2000) The future of children’s rights, Children and Society, 14 (4), 277–93.

Harrison, B. (1978) Separate spheres: the opposition to women’s suffrage in Britain. London: Croom Helm.
Holt, J. (1974) Escape from childhood. New York: E. P. Duttonand Co.

John, M. (2003) Young citizens in action. In Children’s rights and power: charging up for a new century. London: Jessica Kingsley, chapter 8.

Lister, R. with Smith, N., Middleton, S and; Cox, S. (2005) Young people and citizenship. In M. Barry (ed.) Youth policy and social inclusion: critical debates with young people. London: Routledge, 33–53.

Lockyer, A. (2003) The political status of children and young people. In A. Lockyer, B. Crick and J. Annette (eds)Education for democratic citizenship: issues of theory and practice. Aldershot: Ashgate, 120–38.
Mill, J. S. (2006 [1869]) The subjection of women. Gloucester: Dodo Press.

Ofsted (2006) Towards consensus?: citizenship in secondary schools. London: Office for Standards in Education.

Pavlovic, Z. (1996) Children’s Parliament in Slovenia. In M. John (ed.) Children in charge: the child’s right to a fair hearing. London: Jessica Kingsley, 93–107.

QCA (1998) Education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools: final report of the Advisory Group on Citizenship (The Crick Report). London: Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

UNCRC (2004) Concluding observations: Slovenia. New York: United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Underdown, A. (2002) ‘I’m growing up too fast’: messages from young carers, Children and Society, 16 (1), 57–60.

White, C., Bruce, S.and Ritchie, J. (2000) Young people’s politics: political interest and engagement amongst 14–24 year olds. London: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Rock around the ASBO ‒ Re-evaluating the Teddy Boys through the terms of Blair’s Britain

(Academic article written June 2006 for MA in Childhood Studies at the Institute of Education, London. Peer reviewed in the sense that it received a distinction from course markers Dr Jane Martin and Dr Vincent Carpentier and the mark was ratified by the Institute, but not officially cleared for publication - hence its appearance in my blog rather than somewhere more academically kosher. Excuse eccentric paragraph spacing - Blogger doesn't like text imported from Word.)

‘We have unparalleled prosperity,’ wrote Tony Blair in February 2006, ‘but also the break-up of traditional community and family ties and the emergence of behaviour that was rare 50 years ago.’ Used as a throwaway in an article seeking to rationalise New Labour’s policies against terrorism and anti-social behaviour, it defied critics who accuse the UK government of eroding personal liberties (Blair 2006). It was also a useful tool for gathering public support: if behaviour is unprecedented, then perhaps a revolutionary response is required.

But how new is the behaviour to which the Prime Minister was referring? The term ‘anti-social behaviour’ is now so much part of everyday parlance – with its own abbreviation (ASB) and its own response from authority (the anti-social behaviour order or ASBO) – that it has taken on the appearance of a new phenomenon, something to cause The Sun’s complaint that ‘the biggest change in society over the past 25 years is the way respect has disappeared’ (13 May 2005: 6). And yet, precisely 25 years ago the Daily Express also mourned the disappearance of respect when it judged there to have been ‘a revulsion from authority and discipline’ in society. Quoted by Geoffrey Pearson in his study of postwar hooliganism (1983: 4), this was one of many examples he used to illustrate a cycle which causes each generation to hark back to ‘a “golden age” of order and security’ (1983: 7).

In suggesting that today’s anti-social modes of behaviour were rare 50 years ago, Tony Blair identifies the 1950s as his golden age. It was, of course, a piece of quick rhetoric used to justify a strand of policy-making. But while it is hardly unusual for a politician to exercise selective memory in such circumstances, the Prime Minister’s comment does seem particularly forgetful; just a cursory glance at his ‘golden age’ reveals that every one of his words could have been used to characterise Britain 50 years ago.

The decade spanning the 1950s truly was an era of ‘unparalleled prosperity’, with the experience of new wealth felt by most groups in society due to full employment afforded by the postwar resurgence in building and manufacturing. Despite this very positive experience there was also a ‘break-up of traditional community and family ties’, as vast numbers of working-class families moved into new housing estates which isolated many in unfamiliar surroundings (Young and Willmott 1957). And there was, indeed, concern over the ‘emergence of behaviour that was rare 50 years ago’. Speaking at a conference on crime and punishment held in London in February 1953, the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, blamed a rise in crime on ‘the general decline in religion, in morals, in integrity and in family life’, while Dr John Spencer of the London School of Economics harked back more specifically to the period which had ended 50 years before. ‘In the society in which we lived to-day,’ he was reported as saying, ‘there was not the certainty that prevailed in Victorian days.’ He was speaking at the very dawn of the Teddy Boy era (The Times, 2 March 1953: 5).

Common sense would suggest that no single group of young people can be responsible for all juvenile crime and anti-social behaviour at any one time. But, both now and 50 years ago, specific groups have emerged as the focus for concern. In 2006, the spotlight is on ‘hoodies’ – young people who hide their faces by pulling the hood of a sports top (also called a ‘hoodie’) over their heads. In the 1950s, it was the Teddy Boys who engendered this alarm, and there are interesting comparisons to be drawn between the contemporary responses to each group. Of course, modern British society differs profoundly from that of the 1950s. It is vastly more diverse – culturally, racially and socially – and everyday life has been revolutionised by computer technology and access to global markets. Violent crime is more prevalent and alcohol consumption among young people has soared. Yet these and other very significant differences serve to shroud consistencies between the two periods and the cyclical nature of social dynamics, as identified by Pearson (1983). This is compounded by statements like Tony Blair’s, which appear to forget events of the past and claim the contemporary experience as unprecedented.

This essay seeks to banish that forgetfulness and, in recognition of the historian’s ‘duty to the people of the past’ (Aldrich 2003), to recall the concerns which surrounded juvenile behaviour in the 1950s. It will cast a contemporary light on the experience and impact of the Teddy Boys, re-evaluating them through the very terms used to describe apparently unprecedented elements of today’s society. The purpose, in recognition of a ‘duty to the people of the present’ (Aldrich 2003), is to inform current thinking by highlighting the existence of a continuum in some of the actions and social attitudes across the two eras.

Following a brief description of the Teddy Boys and their activities between 1953 and 1959, the essay will ask whether their behaviour would be deemed as ‘anti-social’ by today’s definition, and then look at their experience and impact through terms used to describe issues linked with anti-social behaviour in the modern context. Were the Teddy Boys ‘alienated’? Did they ‘lack neighbourhood attachment’? And were their actions the result of ‘poor parental discipline and supervision’? In answering these questions, it will draw an understanding of the Teddy Boys from current strands of policy-making and, in so doing, pass some comment on today’s views and practices.

Six years of the Teds
Accounts of the Teddy Boys pinpoint 1953 as the year in which they emerged from south London (Pearson 1983; Rock and Cohen 1970; Springhall 1986). Dressed in neo-Edwardian suits – from which their name was derived – they were easily identified and, just a year after they first appeared, had gained a reputation for violence. The Daily Sketch branded them ‘teenage toughs’ and linked them with a new drive by Scotland Yard to ‘tackle and beat juvenile crime’ (19 April 1954: 5). Even The Times, which tended to be more circumspect in its judgement, was confident in identifying them as ‘delinquent’ in an editorial published at around the same time (25 May 1954: 7).
These views were not unjustified because violence certainly was an aspect of Teddy Boy behaviour. Rock and Cohen (1970) record well-known episodes of extreme violence and vandalism, beginning with the murder of a young man by a ‘gang’ of youths on Clapham Common in 1953. There was a violent battle between two ‘gangs’ on a railway station in Kent in April 1954 and a series of ‘rock ‘n’ roll riots’ during 1956, in which cinemas across the country were wrecked when fights broke out at screenings of particular films, notably Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock. Finally, in 1958, they were involved in two well-publicised dance hall murders and blamed for starting race riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill. Between these major events, Teddy Boys were linked to the increase in juvenile crime and many isolated incidents of vandalism, rowdy behaviour and intimidation.

Most Teddy Boys were adolescents aged between 15 and 18, caught in a curious hiatus between finishing school at 15 and compulsory national service at 18. ‘These were not Teds, but men,’ says Colin MacInnes’s shocked narrator as he describes a sudden massed attack on four black men in Absolute Beginners, a tale culminating in the Notting Hill race riot (MacInnes 1959). And the Teds were almost exclusively working class, as T. R. Fyvel made clear in his lengthy study of their culture. The opening paragraphs describe how, from his top-floor maisonette in the late 1950s, he would look out across a new public housing estate, built to provide ‘London working-class occupiers with better homes than the majority had known before’, and spy ‘dark figures of boys and half-grown youths … wearing the identical Teddy boy suits’ (1961: 13–14). The Teds’ working-class identity is key and will be discussed in this essay as it has in all analysis since the 1950s, be it in Fyvel’s journalistic scrutiny or the interpretation of academics such as Rock and Cohen (1970). Here, their views and others will be drawn into the modern context of New Labour’s campaign against ‘lack of respect for values that almost everyone in this country shares’ (Respect Task Force 2006), beginning with the core matter of anti-social behaviour.

Anti-social behaviour, gangs and government responses
On its website, the Home Office (2006) defines anti-social behaviour as ‘covering a whole complex of selfish and unacceptable activity that can blight the quality of community life’. Some of the examples listed, such as ‘nuisance neighbours’ and drug-dealing, are either anachronistic in a discussion about the Teddy Boys, irrelevant to their social group or refer to behaviour that is not mentioned in connection with them. However, three of the examples do provide the basis for some interesting comparison. They are:
  • rowdy and nuisance behaviour
  • yobbish behaviour and intimidating groups taking over public spaces
  • vandalism, graffiti and fly-posting.
The hoodies of today are certainly linked with these activities in the press and other media. In Rochdale, ‘youths’ were reported to have forced worshippers from a church, ‘having thrown stones through stained glass windows, pelted the building with eggs and terrorised a Mothers’ Union meeting’ (Bunyan 2005) and in Teesside a serial car thief was ‘hit with an anti-social behaviour order to stop him wearing any type of hat or cap in public’ (Allen and Roberts 2005). Meanwhile, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, remarked that he had once been intimidated by ten ‘fellas in hoods’ at a motorway café (BBC 2005) and Tony Blair was reported in The Sun as agreeing that ‘“hoodies” and baseball caps had become symbols used by thugs to intimidate the public’ (13 May: 6).

Very similar examples can be drawn from the 1950s’ media. ‘Yobbish behaviour by intimidating groups taking over public spaces’ is certainly evident in reports of Teddy Boys fighting openly on the sea-front in Brighton (Daily Sketch, 21 April 1954: 16), ‘insulting and getting rough with customers’ in pubs (Daily Sketch, 19 April 1954: 5) and setting a dog on a nine-year-old girl (The Times, 27 May 1958: 5). Fyvel describes an event he attended at which
Youngsters making for the dance-floor shoved their way ruthlessly through the crowd; I saw cigarettes thrown on the floor or stubbed out on the tables; chairs were kicked out of the way or pushed over; at one spot, where crockery was smashed and stewards hurried anxiously to the scene, there were shrieks of laughter’ (1961: 126).

Rowdiness, intimidation and vandalism are all evident in these reports and, if the Home Office were to apply its current definitions, the Teddy Boys’ actions would certainly be identified as anti-social today. Clearly, individuals were either actively intimidated by the Teds or felt themselves to be so. But while their involvement in specific anti-social and criminal acts is not in question, commentators have disagreed about the extent to which Teddy Boys as a social group deserved to become the focus of a moral panic regarding their actions.

The pivotal area of discussion surrounds group behaviour, and whether Teddy Boys operated in organised gangs to be feared by individuals and even society as a whole. A similar debate continues today in consistent media reference to gangs of hoodies or ‘feral youths’ (Barkham 2005, for example), and is reflected by the Home Office’s concern over ‘intimidating groups taking over public spaces’. Fyvel, whose book was researched and mainly written during the Teddy Boy era, states that there were, indeed, ‘early large gangs’ (1961: 76). Referring to the Clapham Common murder in 1953, he specifically mentions the ‘gang’ which chased four unfamiliar teenagers and eventually killed one of them. Clearly, murder is considerably more than an anti-social act, but the reference to a ‘gang’ suggests a level of organisation whatever the activity, although Fyvel may not have intended this interpretation. The view that gangs existed was common at the time, making appearances in news reporting (‘a gang of 150 Teddy Boys armed with iron bars and clubs attacked a fairground in East London’ – Daily Express, 31 August 1957: 1) and in Absolute Beginners, where a local Ted threatens the narrator on the orders of Flikker, the leader of his ‘mob’ (MacInnes 1959).

With the benefit of hindsight, Rock and Cohen (1970) concluded that groups described as ‘gangs’ were nebulous in character and that, while individual incidents were often brutal as well as senseless, they could not be regarded as planned or organised. Their article rehearses many of the arguments that Cohen went on to publish in Folk Devils and Moral Panics, his analysis of the clashes between Mods and Rockers in the 1960s (Cohen 1972). Both publications lay the blame for moral panic at the door of the media which served to demonise the groups involved by ‘amplifying’ their ‘deviance’ so that, in their rush to report examples of group rowdiness and vandalism, they effectively invited the very behaviour that they condemned. In relation to the Teddy Boys, Rock and Cohen claim that this was compounded by ad hoc and inappropriate responses from the police and government which ‘served to reassure the public that “something was being done” and had the unintended consequence of giving the “menace” a structure that it never had’ (1970: 306). 

Meanwhile, Jefferson (1975) discusses a strong allegiance to ‘the group’ among Teddy Boys – a theme to which this essay will return – but does not mention any organisation or hierarchy.
A detailed reading of Fyvel suggests that his use of the term ‘gangs’ in relation to the Teddy Boys was influenced by habitual contemporary reference, and more the result of a vibrant writer’s linguistic juggling than something intended to imply organised violence. In fact he produces evidence to the contrary. A long quotation from a social worker about his knowledge of young people refers to territorial groups bound by a mutual sense of belonging to a specific ‘clique’, but ‘with no foresight whatsoever in the way its groupings came about’ (Fyvel 1961: 23). An interview with a Teddy Boy also refers to his ‘clique’ but gives no impression of any leadership or organisation. Ultimately, Fyvel presents an image of Teddy Boy group mentality which accords with the analysis offered by the later writers: that it was an accidental allegiance forged by dint of being in the same place at the same time.

Despite the demonisation of Teddy Boys in the press and outrage expressed by some politicians – there were calls at the 1958 Tory Party conference for the return of flogging to deal with soaring rates of juvenile crime – the eventual legislative response to the Teds’ anti-social behaviour appears to have recognised that they did not pose more of a threat than earlier juvenile delinquents, and certainly showed no concern about organised gangs. Although Home Secretary R. A. Butler did announce the building of new short-sharp-shock Detention Centres at the 1958 Tory Party conference – a policy whose reputation has since been tarnished – it was seen at the time to be a moderate plan, designed to keep young offenders out of prison and to detain them for as short a time as possible (Rawles 1981). Additionally, Springhall lists a number of White Papers and legislation that appeared from the late 1950s and into the 1960s which were ‘uniformly soft’ on juvenile delinquency, and which laid the blame for the rise in youth crime not on the criminality of young people themselves, but on ‘deeper structural conflicts within British society’ (1986: 196).

Just as Teddy Boys were reported by the 1950s’ media to run in gangs, hoodies and ‘feral youths’ are said to do so now. The 1953 Clapham Common murder and 1958 dance hall murders served to demonise the behaviour of all Teddy Boy groups. Today, a similar view of hoodies has resulted from reports of the hooded ‘happy slapping’ gang who, appallingly, filmed themselves on a mobile phone while kicking a man to death in December 2005 (Laville 2005). What has changed is the response of government to the popular conception of anti-social gangs. R. A. Butler resisted the pressure of outrage from both the media and his parliamentary colleagues to take a punitive response that would have been out of step with more thoughtful views on social responsibility. His resolve was, perhaps, afforded by a more patrician distance between politicians and the public than is possible now. Even so, John Prescott’s widely reported recollection of being set upon by those ‘fellas in hoods’ and Tony Blair’s published views about hoodies appear to actively feed public indignation rather than step back from it, as Butler did. This highlights the shift in relationship between the government and the public, and informs the context in which ASBOs are handed out to young people today. Disquiet at their punitive impact has now been expressed by the government’s own chief adviser on youth crime. Professor Rod Morgan, chair of the Youth Justice Board, is reported as being concerned that ‘hysteria over “yobs” and “feral children” has led to record numbers of children being targeted by the police for behaviour which in the past would have just earned them a reprimand’ (The Independent on Sunday, 23 April 2006: 6–7). Interviewed in The Guardian, pensioner Colin Wadeson makes a related point.
In the evening when you’re out and there’s a group of youngsters in a dark area it can be threatening. It’s an impression. It doesn’t mean that they are causing trouble. Historically there’s always been this kind of thing. The teddy boys and the mods and rockers created fear (Barkham 2005).

Although speaking as an individual, Mr Wadeson’s words could just as easily apply to the direction taken by government; keeping an eye on the past can be helpful in gauging an appropriate reaction.
So far, this essay has established that the Teddy Boys would have satisfied at least some of New Labour’s definitions of anti-social behaviour, and that Tony Blair’s forgetfulness regarding their impact during the 1950s – whether real or expedient – may be a factor in the severity of the government’s response towards the anti-social behaviour of young people today. But what of the causes of anti-social behaviour? Can the experiences of the Teddy Boys be analysed in terms of the factors which are linked with anti-social behaviour today, and is there any continuity in the causal factors that were identified across the two periods?

Social factors linked with anti-social behaviour
The Home Office (2006) identifies no less than 20 specific risk factors for anti-social behaviour. Some of them are, again, not relevant to a discussion of the Teddy Boys, either because they were not a feature of Teddy Boy society (the availability of drugs and alcohol), not a factor recognised in 1950s society (school disorganisation) or because they have not been mentioned in connection with Teddy Boys (mental illness). However, the Home Office’s remaining risk factors present some interesting opportunities for study. As there is insufficient room to consider them all, the following sections will look at Teddy Boy society in the light of a key selection which are identified in the headings.

Alienation and lack of social commitment
In the context of 1950s Britain, where there was guaranteed employment for young people as soon as they left school, Fyvel describes Teddy Boys as being drawn from a narrow stratum of young workers that was a ‘class left over, left behind’ and explains how they were alienated from the newly ‘affluent society’ in the course of their education (1961: 122). Failure of the 11-plus exam excluded them from a grammar-school education which could open doors to well-paid white-collar employment, and subsequent failure to gain apprenticeships excluded them from gaining the skills that could lead to good blue-collar earnings. Both are linked to another of the Home Office’s risk factors – low achievement at school – and consigned the Teddy Boys to boring manual labour and an early stagnation in pay which eventually excluded them from the new prosperity.

Fyvel regards the Teddy Boys’ alienation from the affluent society as something new and as the cause of their inward focus on the group, or ‘clique’. Later academic studies disagree and, instead, locate the Teddy Boys on a continuum of working-class alienation. Rock and Cohen (1970) do refer to the Teds’ failure in school and at work but, drawing on David Downes’ theory of youth subculture, they explain this as a fundamental lack of interest by working-class youth in middle-class aspiration. In this analysis, the Teddy Boys had no expectation of success in mainstream society, and so their group was the only circle in which self-respect and autonomy were possible. Elsewhere, Jefferson (1975) identifies the Teds’ group loyalty as a reaffirmation of traditional working-class values, and this is reiterated by Pearson (1983) who sees their actions as being entirely in keeping with earlier forms of working-class gang life. Whatever the root cause, all commentators agree that the Teddy Boys were alienated from society and that they felt themselves to be so. The group became home, especially once alienation took the concrete form of bans from dance halls and cafés. As one of the Clapham Common Teds explained some years later:
The one place we couldn’t ever get barred from was the Common, that was open land and we could go up there and do pretty well what we liked, and no one could bar us from that (Parker 1965: 25).

A sense of alienation made the Teddy Boy group precious to its members, and this group loyalty was, in turn, linked to their anti-social behaviour. According to Jefferson (1975), the Teddy Boys’ actions were a defence of the group and a symbolic attempt to avoid being further deprived of what little they had left in a declining social status: the self; the cultural extension of the self (their personal appearance); and the social extension of the self (the group). So, in Jefferson’s analysis, when Teddy Boys fought with other Teds they were defending the social extension of themselves (their group), and when they fought with other people they were defending themselves and the cultural extension of themselves (their dress). Whether or not one accepts this interpretation, it is clear that group-mindedness was implicated in the Teddy Boys’ anti-social behaviour. As the same Clapham Common Ted goes on to say:

There were lots of different lads from all over the place – the Latchmere Lot, the Brixton Boys, the Elephant Mob. If you were on your own and they caught you, they’d do you up. So, if you caught some of them, you did them up, know what I mean? (Parker 1965: 25).

So, Fyvel, several academics and even the Teds themselves recognised that alienation was a factor in their anti-social behaviour. But did the Teddy Boys also have a recognisable ‘lack of social commitment’? Perhaps so. It is certainly suggested in the analysis of Rock and Cohen – that the Teds’ behaviour had its roots in traditional working-class disdain for middle-class aspiration – for if commitment to society is measured by those who control it (the middle classes), it would follow that young people who have no interest in the controlling group’s aspirations will have no commitment to its society either.

The terms by which today’s young people are alienated from society are, of course, very different from those which influenced Teddy Boy life in the 1950s. Discussion of a working-class subculture, for instance, has been replaced by debate over the existence of an ‘underclass’, one that is expressly defined by how it differs from the traditional working class (Buckingham 1999). The hoodie is a more amorphous character than the Teddy Boy, dressed not in a totemic uniform but in a piece of clothing which can be found in almost every wardrobe in the country. And the term ‘feral’ suggests that young people categorised in this way are even more alienated from society than any who went before them. Even so, the very fact that the modern risk factors of alienation and lack of social commitment can be interpreted as factors in the Teddy Boys’ anti-social behaviour suggests a continuum in the relationship between those who embrace and control society, and the young people whose behaviour offends them.

Lack of neighbourhood attachment

Efforts to move families out of the malignant urban slums created to house workers during the Industrial Revolution began in the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1950s this altruistic programme had become an imperative following German bombing during the Second World War, especially in London. Sprawling new estates were the solution to a chronic housing shortage and, for many at the time, they ‘embodied the early ambitions of the post-war welfare state’ (Fyvel 1961: 13).
But the experience of life on these estates was not all positive. Fyvel’s outlook from his apartment window made it possible for him to do more than just identify the local housing estate as home to many Teddy Boys. It enabled him to gain an impression of their relationship with that environment. And while, according to him, most inhabitants ‘considered themselves fortunate enough’ to be living on the estate, he observed the teenagers to be out of place and watched them ‘hanging about the stairs and courtyards’, then ‘drifting off in twos and threes or larger groups … as if drawn by a magnet’ to the city (1961: 13–14). In Fyvel’s view, the Teddy Boys’ anti-social behaviour stemmed from a deep sense of insecurity, and he finds reason to believe that rehousing was partly to blame for this. While applauding the end of slum living, he suggests that the demolition of grim 19th-century buildings which were the traditional home of working-class urban youth also broke the chain of family memory, leaving the young Teds cut adrift from traditions that would otherwise have sustained them.

It is an attractively simple theory, although detailed contemporary research with families who had moved into suburban housing estates from traditional communities in Bethnal Green found no evidence to support it (Young and Willmott 1957). Interviews with women who had left the old community revealed that they saw their mothers just as frequently as they had before the move – a finding which suggests that family memory would have been alive and kicking at the time. What Young and Willmott did discover was an opinion that the new estates were unfriendly, peopled by inhabitants who had no interest in getting to know their neighbours and who felt there was nowhere to socialise. The researchers observed that ‘In Bethnal Green there is one pub for every 400 people, and one shop for every 44 … At Greenleigh there is one pub for 5,000 people, and one shop for 300’ (1957: 116). So while the Teddy Boys may not have been completely cut off from the support of extended family, there was probably little incentive for them to become attached to the empty concrete of their new neighbourhood.

Johnstone and Mooney (2005) suggest that, after the Second World War, sociologists began to take an interest in the ‘decline of the community’ and the notion that ‘problem people’ lived on ‘depressed housing estates’. This being the case, the Teds would have been among the first generation of young people to grow up under the scrutiny of this analysis. Today, in Johnstone and Mooney’s view, New Labour has used these concepts as the basis for a policy of social control. They are the principles which underlie the Home Office’s opinion that ‘lack of neighbourhood attachment’ is a risk factor for anti-social behaviour, and they hold the key to why ASBOs are operated in the local area along with more positive community-building initiatives such as Sure Start and the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund.

Back in his apartment in the late 1950s, Fyvel clearly believed that lack of neighbourhood attachment was a factor in the Teddy Boys’ anti-social behaviour. Observing the movement of those local Teds, he would watch them take leave of the ‘social wasteland’ in which they lived and head for town in the very groups that would be reported as ‘gangs’ and whose behaviour caused national concern.

Poor parental discipline and supervision
A tendency to blame working-class parents for the behaviour of young people existed well before the 1950s. Humphries (1981) says that middle-class commentators in the late 19th and early 20th centuries blamed working-class parents for an inability to assert moral control over their children’s ‘savage’ instincts, and that this was cited as the reason why most juvenile crime was committed by working-class children. According to Humphries, this interpretation overlooked the impact of poverty and inequality on what were largely crimes against property and, indeed, were a form of unconscious social rebellion.

There is no evidence to suggest whether or not Humphries regarded the Teddy Boys’ behaviour as another embodiment of the class war, but there is no doubt that parental ineptitude and lack of guidance were still perceived as causal factors for juvenile crime and anti-social behaviour during the 1950s. Pearson recalls fury at the 1958 Tory Party conference over the ‘lack of parental control, interest and support’ and, in the following year, parents were condemned in the House of Commons for being ‘indifferent to their children and utterly without social conscience’ (1983: 13, 14).
As one might expect, Fyvel had clear views on the matter. He feared that the affluent society from which the Teddy Boys were alienated was also having a destabilising impact on family life and reported the views of family social workers who gave him the impression that:
More parents than before seemed content not to know where their teenage children roamed at night, just as the children now had more money to go further afield. The whole message of the mass culture seemed to sanction personal irresponsibility (1961: 225).

It was a new articulation of a well-oiled theme – the ‘mass-society’ theories first employed by social thinkers during the Industrial Revolution, and which judged the working classes to be brutalised by urban life and incapable of dealing with the subsequently overheated behaviour of their children – a view which brings us full circle to the very ideas criticised by Humphries (1981).

Given that parents have so long been blamed for crime and anti-social behaviour among young people, it is hardly surprising that the current government continues to do so – although the extent to which it has regulated parental responsibility is quite unprecedented. There was certainly nothing like the orders placed on parents of young people who are given ASBOs, which call them to attend counselling and may limit their actions. But it is interesting to note that such action against parents may have satisfied the Daily Sketch which, in a leader entitled ‘Bad homes – bad boys’, called for ‘heavier legal penalties where there is flagrant and persistent failure to give the children the care and attention which is their due’ (Daily Sketch, 10 April 1954: 16).

This essay has established that the behaviour of the Teddy Boys would, indeed, have been interpreted as anti-social by the Home Office’s current definitions. Furthermore, some of the social factors now linked with anti-social behaviour were also present in the experience of the Teddy Boys, and recognised as relevant at the time. But care must be taken not to over-emphasise these similarities. In identifying those Home Office definitions which do apply to the Teddy Boys’ actions it became clear that others bore no relation to their era, and the same was true of Home Office’s risk factors for anti-social behaviour. While the definitions and risk factors that do apply in both contexts point to aspects of a continuum across social experience, those which only apply to today highlight important ways in which society has changed. For example, the availability of drugs and alcohol is one of the Home Office’s current risk factors for anti-social behaviour and is perceived as relevant by the public, with young people in Bexleyheath describing their hoodie peers as ‘street rats’ who ‘sit on the street and drink’ (Barkham 2005). By comparison, young people in the 1950s – Teddy Boys and other teenagers – had no marked interest in drugs and alcohol, and so its availability was irrelevant as a risk factor for anti-social behaviour.

But an investigation of the Teddy Boys which uses the terms underpinning today’s views does draw the experiences of that period back into the modern consciousness. It highlights the duties not only of historians but of society in general towards both the people of the past and the people of the present. As Simon Jenkins put it: ‘Any event is part of a continuum. Without history we are infants. All good news becomes ecstasy and all bad news disaster’ (quoted in Aldrich 2003: 137). Attention to historical context is vital if we are to judge which of our experiences are ‘unparalleled’ and which are not.

Note on newspaper referencing
References to most newspaper articles appear on the text, with publication title, date and page number given in parentheses. However, articles which have been accessed on the internet do not have page references and so they cannot be referenced in this way. These have been included in the Harvard referencing, with full web-page details provided.

Aldrich, R. (2003) The three duties of the historian of education, History of Education, 32 (2), 133–43.

Allen, V. and Roberts, B. (2005) Reclaim our streets: hoodies and baddies. The Daily Mirror, 13 May.

Barkham, P. (2005) How a top can turn a teen into a hoodlum. The Guardian, 14 May.

BBC (2005) Prescott backing hooded tops ban. BBC news website, 12 May.

Blair, T. (2006) I don’t destroy liberties, I protect them. The Observer, 26 February.

Bunyan, N. (2005) Vandals force worshippers from church. The Telegraph, 5 May.

Buckingham, A. (1999) Is there an underclass in Britain? The British Journal of Sociology, 50 (1), 49–75.

Cohen, S. (1972) Folk devils and moral panics: the creation of the Mods and the Rockers. London: MacGibbon and Kee.

Fyvel, T. V. (1961) The insecure offenders: rebellious youth in the welfare state. London: Chatto and Windus.

Home Office (2006) Anti-social behaviour: what is ASB? Home Office website.

Humphries, S. (1981) Hooligans or rebels? An oral history of working-class childhood and youth 1889–1939. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Jefferson, T. (1975) Cultural responses of the Teds. In S. Hall. and T. Jefferson (eds) Resistance through rituals: youth subcultures in post-war Britain. London: Hutchinson, pp. 81–7.

Johnstone, C. and Mooney, G. (2005) Locales of ‘disorder’ and ‘disorganisation’: exploring New Labour’s approach to council estates. Paper presented to conference, Securing the urban renaissance: policing, community and disorder, Glasgow, 16–17 June.

MacInnes, C. (1959) Absolute beginners. London: Macgibbon and Kee.

Parker, T. (1965) The Plough boy. London: Arrow.

Pearson, G. (1983) Hooligan: a history of respectable fears. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Rawles, J. (ed.) (1981) Home Office 1782–1982. London: Home Office.

Respect Task Force (2006) Respect action plan. London: Home Office.

Rock, P. and Cohen, S. (1970) The Teddy boy. In V. Bogdanor and R. Skidelsky (eds) The age of affluence 1951–64. London: Macmillan.

Springhall, J. (1986) ‘Rock around the Clock’: the adolescent comes of age. Coming of age: adolescence in Britain 1860–1960. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, chapter 6, 190–235.

Young, M. and Willmott, P. (1957) Family and kinship in East London. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.