Skip navigation

Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world

Articles and Briefings

The retaliators: Young People and Integration

By Adrienne Katz, Executive Director of Young Voice. Source: Reclaiming Britishness

Adrienne Katz looks at the pressures on young people in the inner cities.

The governments aim to promote social inclusion and community cohesion through initiatives such as youth parliaments and citizenship classes may be undermined because they do not address the fundamental role which street life plays in young peoples lives. The day-to-day micro reality what happens to teenagers on the way to school or in the neighbourhood will have the greatest impact on their sense of belonging. Policies will need to respond to the fact that fear, the lack of personal safety and the subsequent loss of faith in authority are driving a minority of young people to take their own steps to stay safe. Although small in number, these young people are destabilising society in some dangerous ways with some groups suffering disproportionately. These groups belong namely, but not solely, to ethnic minorities. For young people, the scales are weighted on either side by two opposites: victimhood and a sense of dignity and worth. Anything that can tilt the direction towards dignity will help avoid the dangers inherent in feeding victimhood; for the latter can help shore up a sense of moral right and indignation. At Bradford University, Ian Vine has described the psychological pathways to civic alienation and shown how this sense of moral indignation can lead young people to justify actions they take in self defence

This chapter is based on two research projects carried out by Young Voice during momentous events. The first, in Bradford, took place just before the riots of 2001 (86% of the sample reflect ethnic minority communities). It explored the career aspirations and future dreams of young people and included experience of bullying and racism. The second, in an inner London borough, took place after 11 September. This study explored issues of personal safety, bullying, gangs, attitudes to weapons, drug misuse and emotional well-being among 2062 young people from one borough. By monitoring how safe young people feel in their neighbourhood and on the journey to school, and whether or not they were bullied, the projects revealed:

  1. how the lived experience of certain young people differed between groups which were more vulnerable to racism and bullying
  2. how this in turn affected their overall attitudes and behaviour whether they were more likely to fight back in some way or lose hope altogether.

Young Voice had already found that despite schools being obliged to have anti-bullying policies in place, almost half the pupils dont believe their school has one and half of those who say their school does so, consider it ineffective. The more detailed local studies confirmed this pattern but also made it clear that school policies cannot succeed without support from the wider community and other agencies because bullying gets displaced outside school even when schools are effective at reducing it. From these results we developed a Coherent Community Approach which aims to respond to young peoples multiple needs and use the wider community to support schools in their anti-bullying efforts.

Who is more vulnerable?

It is a truism to say that young people can teach adults a lot about how to get along. And the evidence compiled by Young Voice does show that for the most part young people have a remarkable capacity to relate to each other in ways that bridge cultural and ethnic divides. The main problem is that those who arent able to relate, although small in number, are destabilising communities in dangerous ways.

The studies by Young Voice show that a minority of young people have poor coping strategies in response to threats and fears. We have labelled this group at risk. There are two main coping strategies displayed by this group. The submitters, on the one hand, who become timid or withdrawn, do not fulfil their potential or become depressed. If they use drugs it is to relieve tension. These young people become increasingly disaffected from school or unsure about their potential, a trend which affects their life chances in the long-term. The effects on aspiration and attainment in this group are clear. In Bradford, this showed itself in the fact that young people had a more resigned attitude, with 20% saying that bullying has made me feel I cant do things in contrast to only 14% of people saying this in the national sample. Fewer than half these young people believe they will achieve their goal for the future in contrast to almost two-thirds of other students. The second group could be referred to as the retaliators. These are the young people who fight back and fall into risky patterns of behaviour, particularly joining gangs or carrying weapons. They pick fights, feel depressed, and bully other people. Some smash things up or join gangs and carry weapons. They also use more drugs and alcohol. The inappropriate actions they take put not only themselves at risk, but act to destabilise their neighbourhood as a whole and they too become less likely to fulfil their potential.

In both cases, bullying plays a key role in this process of destabilisation. More worryingly, our studies found that often bullying comes in the form of covert racism because young people from ethnic minorities reported higher indices of bullying overall. In 'Bullying in Britain' in 2000, Young Voice found that while approximately one in ten of all young people in Bradford reported suffering from bullying, one in three Muslim children had experienced violence from bullies. Consequently, one finds that young people from ethnic minorities are often more likely to be 'at risk'. In a survey of 2,062 inner London teenagers post-11 September, for example, one in six young people had a chance of being 'at risk'. Within this troubling group of 315 young people, Asians were the most likely to join a gang and carry a weapon. Nearly all of these 'at risk' young Asians described being attacked, bullied and insulted and the feeling prevailed among them nine in ten of them that 'it is acceptable to carry a weapon for self defence'.

Nonetheless, fixed prescriptions which focus on black or Asian populations miss the point for two reasons. One reason is because minority population patterns vary from one neighbourhood to another, with different groups becoming targeted by bullies because they belong to the smallest minority. Another reason is that the experiences of young people from the same ethnic group living in the same neighbourhood deviated sharply: Those at risk and those not at risk led entirely different lives: Asians who were not defined as at risk, for example, were also the least likely of young people to either join a gang or carry a weapon. Similar bipolar patterns could be identified among black pupils and their attitudes to school. When pupils were asked if they enjoyed school for example, black pupils not in the at risk category responded more positively than the average of all pupils. This was startling since black pupils are widely known to be the most likely to be excluded from school. On closer examination, black pupils also topped the groups who said they disliked school. The question is which black pupils are unhappy and why?

A more subtle way of analysing the responses of young people is to explore whether the young person sees his or her neighbourhood as a good place in which to grow up; how valued, safe and respected they feel within school and outside it. The surveys in London showed that young people, including white young people, who said ethnic groups dont get on at all in my neighbourhood, were the most likely to be at risk. Of all those interviewed, 50% thought that the different ethnic groups in their neighbourhood get on either OK, Well, or Very Well. But the 8% who said they believed that ethnic groups do not get on at all in their neighbourhood were the most troubling. Although small in number they were disproportionately disturbing to the majority and to themselves. Almost a third of them reported having been bullied within the last two weeks and more than one in four were likely to fall into the at risk category already described above. Forty-three per cent said they were likely to join a gang and 61% believe it is acceptable to carry a weapon for safety (one in five already do). They were also more likely to use hard drugs, make abusive comments to teachers and almost half of them admit to bullying other people. This small minority might grow alarmingly if the further 11% of young people who replied the different ethnic groups only just get on come to agree with them that we do not get on at all.

Moving forward: a Coherent Community Approach

The results of these surveys are the basis of Young Voices Coherent Community Approach. The aim is to provide local services with evidence of young peoples needs, looking both at how we can better understand the lived experience of young people who are potentially at risk, pre-empt the development of risky patterns of behaviour and help them fulfil their potential. At the heart of this is young peoples voice and involvement. Unless we hear from them about what is working or not working to reduce bullying and racism, imposed solutions will be likely to fail. Unless they wholeheartedly support reduction strategies and believe they work, cynicism will grow. This is why ongoing research with participation is vital. Drawing from what young people have told us in our projects and some innovative projects currently being run at local level, the Coherent Community Approach is divided into five key steps:

Tipping the balance towards dignity: Children need tools to be able to rise above the threats and taunting or intimidation. The best way of supplying these is by giving them something concrete to help build up confidence and counter low self-esteem. In Bradford, for example, a small, low-key youth programme run by a countryside officer helps young Muslim women become involved in the management of countryside projects and outings. The activities are specifically designed to build confidence by giving these young women skills, self-efficacy and determination. By designing a service which is responsive to the cultural sensitivities of their background (for example, ensuring that the girls were chaperoned at all times so that their parents would not be opposed to them attending the sessions), the programme enables them to become part of the mainstream and thrive in the education system. The results speak for themselves: in an area of deprivation in which their mothers barely had education and where their school got 23% through GCSE at A-C grade, eleven out of fourteen of these potentially at risk girls have gone on to higher education.

Understanding groups better: Efforts to promote integration or reduce bullying/racism cannot fall into simple broad-brush categories, i.e. designing services only for black and Asian teenagers. Services need to factor in the discrepancies between different groups and be able to identify those people who are in the minority in any given area. Clearly this will differ from one location to another. The minority may be white, or it may be defined as an even smaller category Catholic, Greek Cypriot or Somali. Monitoring changing patterns in bullying and racism requires constant vigilance and tracking the mutations of the types of bullying and racism practised. Young Voice is setting up a Bully Data Bank to do this .This data bank will centrally hold all the information gathered by Young Voice in partnership with young people. It will be able to provide monitoring and comparisons. To know whether or not an anti-bullying policy works, we need to follow trends, see what works and what needs tweaking. Local authorities will be able to have a survey undertaken, followed by a service keeping them informed.

Putting the street at the centre of our policies: in order to work, policies need to involve not only teachers and school staff, but bus drivers, the police, and other members of the wider community. Durham County Council has been responsive to this need and put in place training schemes to help their employees develop the skills necessary to identify and deal with bullying. They have instigated a county-wide programme offering training packages to teachers, pupil peer support teams, and council staff such as librarians and park keepers. The aim is to help all these stakeholders develop greater awareness about the complexities which lie behind at risk behaviour

Getting all agencies to work together

The borough of Islington has carried out a multi-agency investigation into the day-to-day experienced of its young people. This stakeholder approach makes each agency aware of the way in which their little bit of the teenagers life is linked with other factors. Schools, as well as the drug and alcohol team, the youth offending team, play and leisure departments and the co-ordinator of the Personal Social and Health Education curriculum, all worked collaboratively with Young Voice. The results of the study provided evidence of the complex interaction of factors at work and clear evidence of how necessary a joined-up approach actually is. The motivation of drug users and the links with bullying, or the reasons why people might carry a weapon, are vital information for services tackling these problems.

Involving the community

A Coherent Community Approach does not expect schools to tackle bullying and harassment alone. It involves the local community, the very adults who live on the estates where the tensions may brew up, and the community leaders. Parents too must be asked to sign up to the whole school anti-bullying strategy when their child starts school at secondary level because parents often give advice to their child which is directly counter to the schools policy of non-violence. Violence at home was found to be a driver behind violence on the street so to work with parents and teaching Positive Parenting may be needed in some cases. Above all, it calls for collective responsibility for the safety and dignity of all young citizens. For without an improvement in their personal experience of safety, these young people will perceive all our calls for inclusion and integration as just window dressing.