In the Media

A riot born in deprivation | Tim Newburn

PUBLISHED October 25, 2011

The government data on August's rioters should be treated with caution ? but the picture is grim Commentators on the August riots have been asked regularly about the ways in which these disturbances were similar to or differed from those in the early 1980s in Brixton, Handsworth, Moss Side or Toxteth. One growing difference concerns the quantity of data coming from government departments and other bodies. Today reports were released by the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Metropolitan police, exploring a range of matters including the previous criminal histories of those arrested and charged in the 2011 riots and exploring other aspects of their socioeconomic background. Though these analyses are by no means uncontroversial, they are seemingly illustrative of a growing willingness to provide data for public consumption and to do so in a timely and transparent manner. They have received insufficient credit for this thus far. What should we make of this new data? First, it is important not to be swayed too much by some of the media coverage. " Too sick to work, but not too sick to riot " was the Daily Mail's take on the fact that Department of Work and Pensions data suggest that up to 10% of those appearing in court were on incapacity benefit or disability living allowance. These figures, together with information on previous criminal histories, led the Sun to describe the rioters as being part of a " feckless criminal underclass ". While the analyses do in some ways provide pretty grim reading, they refer to those who have appeared in court so far, and are not necessarily representative of the social mix actually involved in the disturbances. No fullscale analysis has yet been released of any differences there may be, for instance, between those arrested on the nights of the rioting and those who have been subsequently identified through CCTV footage, photographs and police records. One danger is that "rounding up the usual suspects" in the weeks since the riots may seriously have distorted our picture of who was really involved. Putting that to one side, what do the government figures tell us? The overwhelming picture painted by the Ministry of Justice concerns social deprivation. Two-fifths of the young people appearing in court were receiving free school meals, compared with significantly under one fifth in the secondary school population generally. Almost two-thirds of the young people lived in one of the most deprived areas compared with only 3% from one of the least deprived areas. In slightly more than a third of the adult cases, the person concerned was claiming benefits. This is roughly typical of what one might expect to find among those appearing in court on criminal charges ? certainly for the more serious offences. But it is the educational data that are perhaps the most intriguing. In addition to the information on free school meals, the ministry reported that close to two-thirds of the young people in court were identified as having special education needs. The figure in the secondary school population in general is closer to a fifth. In this context, it is hardly surprising that the educational achievement levels at key stage 2 ? the end of primary education ? of those arrested in the riots was significantly below that of the population generally. Indeed, only approximately half of those appearing in court had reached the expected level in English or maths compared with more than three-quarters of the wider population. A similar pattern, albeit based on even smaller numbers, is visible in the key stage 4 results, with only 11% of those appearing in court achieving 5 GCSEs, including English and Maths, compared with half the general population. All such figures must be treated with extreme caution. They all look less remarkable, however, if we begin to look at them in the context of social deprivation, or what in recent years might have been referred to as social exclusion. Considerable social research over the years, including government research, has shown how truancy, exclusion from school and low educational attainment are strongly identified as "risk factors" in relation to involvement in crime. Add into that mix living in a socially deprived neighbourhood, and the young people who appear to feature in the most recent statistical releases on riot-related arrests look rather like we might expect them to. UK riots Crime Social exclusion Education policy Tim Newburn © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds