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Grown Ups Should Step Up

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It's been a highly charged month for parents. In the midst of that annual break from routine - the Summer holidays - when kids are off school and looking for new adventures, we have been regaled with news of the worst possible outcomes. Sixty nine teenage activists and their guides, choosing to spend their free time planning for a new political future, were brutally murdered in Norway. Four youths choosing to build their confidence and courage in the great outdoors, were mauled, one killed, by a polar bear. And thousands of other, wildly diverse teenagers across England, responded to a call to smash and grab on their local high street and ended up with a criminal record, possibly ruining their prospects for a decent job or career in their lifetime.

In each case. teenagers' response to a call to adventure was met in the real world with tragic consequences. Judging by the response of UK politicians this week, most would not allow such a generalisation: surely there is a world of difference between a young idealist running into a gunman and a young arsonist running into the law? There is, but not one the young person could have done much about: at this stage of their life, they are still the barely mediated product of their upbringing - not just parental, but social and environmental too.

Modern brain science reveals that teenage brains are not simply slimmer versions of adult brains, but unstable collections of neurons, not yet able to make common sense or connect cause with effect. They copy, they experiment, they hear and react: like computers they can't do more than the software allows. As Peter Oborne described with feeling in Britain's Daily Telegraph, what these teens are reading about on a daily basis is politicians fiddling expenses, bankers stealing tax payers money, police accepting bribes from newspapers - wily people acting above the law and getting away with it. Surely they should have a go too?

Yes, some have developed a moral compass and found themselves resistant to the call - largely the children of those who have the time and capacity to raise them well: an ever shrinking number in this work and consume age. But many of those facing court today see little of their parents, or for a variety or reasons, no longer hear them. To choose a natural metaphor this time, children are like plants in soil, rising up as flowers only when they get the sun and nutrients required. Those planted in the shadows perform badly. It is up to the gardeners and the programmers to get this right: children must be taught how to behave better, but they cannot be held responsible for their actions so early in life if the infrastructure is missing.

What is most surprising and dismaying, is that the politicians, many of whom are parents themselves, are so woefully disconnected from the social and scientific evidence. Didn't David Cameron recently welcome to Downing Street David Brooks, much feted author of The Social Animal? Brooks' masterful drawing together of all the many threads - social, structural, psychological, neurological, cultural - that are woven into the narrative of an individual's lfe, revealed that success or failure is not simply determined by hard work or good behaviour as our PM would now have it. If it were, wouldn't his youthful antics in the Bullingdon Club have arrested his glittering career? Instead, his attentive parents, his unlimited financial resources, his confident and high achieving social community and the media's expectations for middle class white boys got him back on track. He was allowed to grow up.

Sadly, the elitist nature of Cameron's upbringing has inured him to the experiences of others and in this moment of crisis, he has not been able to make the necessary connections between their behaviour and the broader causes. Some of his ministers, like Michael Gove in this painful clip, refuse to do so, claiming that being able to condemn bad behaviour while putting it into context, is "talking out of both sides of your mouth at the same time". Like teachers unable to exercise any natural authority in their classroom, they are threatening punishment of all kinds but offering no wisdom to those affected. In an act of remarkable folly, families of rioting children - already in subsidised housing - are being evicted from their homes.

Two years ago, in my capacity as a Trustee of the City Academy School - once a school in special measures, now receiving offers from Oxbridge - I co-wrote a paper with the chairman Sir Frank Lowe, looking at the dangers for teenagers in the time between leaving the safe haven of school and their parents' return to the family home. We called it The Missing Two and a Half Hours.

We observed that the reason teenage boys, in particular, are so vulnerable to slipping into a life of crime is not simple and cannot be easily 'fixed' - the causes are multiple and interlocking. At least four groups of factors need to be taken into account and acted on:

First, the inescapable but mostly ignored fact that teenagers are not equipped to behave like adults: their brains are still under construction. As a result, they display behaviour that adults find hard to understand or tolerate. At the same time, society puts expectations on them that they cannot fulfill. Both contribute to the isolation and alienation of teenagers with important psychological consequences for them. Politicians and parents, but also all adults need to embrace childre'ns vulnerability, offer them support, not fear them.

Second, what teenagers do when they are not cared for, choosing gangs in the absence of families, placing themselves above the law, creates a spiral of destructive behaviour which cannot be arrested as they move into adult life. Care in this instance means physical, emotional and psychological engagement, with love.

Third, the lack of explicit good values and culture in the society they are growing up, coupled with innumerable examples of the rewards of being above the law. This is the 'soil' they are being nurtured in. Neal Lawson is excellent on the connection between 'feral youth' and 'feral elites'.

Fourth, the weak structures and policies that enhance their behaviour, from cheap alcohol to the work-life imbalance of the adults in their lives. Teenagers will 'have a go', they are programmed to take risks in order to grow. If there are no boundaries to bounce off, they will keep pushing further. Both parents and politicians can create these boundaries, but - while many have no resources - others choose to ignore their responsibilities.

Each of these four groups of causes reflect each other and collude to create a trap for young teenagers that is difficult to escape.

Sir Frank Lowe has contributed significantly to addressing these issues, firstly through the changes he was able to bring to the school, from redesigning the building to majoring on Sports and Arts to enable inclusion. The number of students at Capital City Academy has risen from 350 to 1200 and the pass mark at GCSE including Eng and Maths has risen from 12% to 44%. 38 Students this year went on to university and they are hoping that one Somali student will get the grades required take up his offer to New College, Oxford, this year.

Secondly, he founded Red Brick Football Club for deprived children in West London, believing that taking part in a sports team can offer much of the relationship and community training that young boys are looking for. In three years they won the Surrey Youth Cup and the Surrey 1st Div U16 Tournament. "More importantly" says Sir Frank, "all the boys have reached the age of 16 and have not been involved in any violence or gangs. It looks as if three of the lads will get professional football contracts - one already has one. The rest - all 17 of them - have gone on to further education".

These are practical, compassionate and effective measures that both government and communities can learn from. They are the tip of an iceberg, yet they embody the more important shift that we all need to make - the idea that we are all, in some way, responsible for the world in which our children are growing up. Not just parents, but all adults that are hoping for a healthy society and friendly community they can grow old in, safely.

(Watch this space for a look at the four areas of change outlined above and the multiple levels they can be practically addressed).