There’s a famous scene in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times where the school superintendent, Thomas Gradgrind, explains his philosophy of education. ‘Now what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.’
In the class is a girl, Sissy Jupe, whose father works in the circus where she has spent a great deal of time with horses. There can be little that Sissy does not know about them.
Gradgrind asks her to define a horse. She can’t. So he asks one of the boys, Bitzer, who obliges: ‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye teeth, and twelve incisors. Sheds coat in the Spring, in marshy countries shed hooves too. Age known by marks in the mouth…..’ And so on.
Gradgrind then turns to Sissy, ‘Now girl number twenty, you know what a horse is.’
Now you know what a horse is.
In the novel, Dickens is challenging a view of education which is utilitarian – the facts – and sees little value in imagination or feelings or what we would now call ‘lived experience’.
Sissy and Bitzer came to mind last Friday when I attended a conference at the Fire and Rescue Training Centre in Handsworth organised by Ronny Tucker who runs the Aspire Boxing Club in Sheffield. He had brought together a large number of people from both the voluntary and statutory services who work, directly or indirectly, with children and young adults – such as social workers, youth leaders, teachers, police. He wanted us all to lift our heads out of the facts and figures, the bureaucratic procedures we can so easily get immersed in, and hear some stories of ‘lived experience’. In particular, he wanted us to hear about how young people (principally males) get drawn into criminality, how something like a stabbing impacts on other family members, and how young people can be steered away from poor decisions in their younger years.
And those who spoke gave powerful and moving testimonies.
One mother spoke about the impact the fatal shooting of her son had upon her. Several men talked about their early lives, which included such traumatic situations as: being abandoned by parents, sexually abused by relatives, lonely in children’s homes, passed from foster carer to foster carer, living in poverty, regarded as a pain in the neck (I’m changing the vocabulary) by teachers, police, almost everyone in authority. Some of the accounts of abuse were graphic and hard to listen to.
The talks were not simply about the scary and traumatic early years the speakers had known, nor the fact that they had turned their lives around. Ronny had asked them to come because they had all reflected long and hard on their experiences and were able to draw some general lessons from them. This was the part of their story that I was most interested in. What had led them into criminality in the first place? What had made them change, and was it something that could be replicated?
Although each story was different, they all involved some sorts of trauma in early life. And all accepted that their lives could have been different; they made poor choices and every choice had consequences.
One spoke about the way he had been ‘groomed’ – his word – by a drug dealer. This man recognised how vulnerable he was and how lonely. So he befriended him – at least that is what he thought was happening. Gradually his new found friend led him into dealing and a life of criminality. Another, who was also involved in drugs and gangs, said the temptations were huge: at one point he was earning £7k a week dealing before he was eventually caught and sent to custody. But in prison he resolved to change, though that involved finding £30k to pay off the gang.
But what was the catalyst that led to them changing their ways? In each case it was another person who came into their lives and began to treat them differently. Johnny Nelson, a former WBO Cruiserweight Boxing champion, spoke about the influence that Brendan Ingle, the boxing club owner, who died in 2018, had on him. When he first went to the Wincobank gym, Ingle took him to one side and asked him about his life and hopes. He took an interest in him and asked him some pretty direct questions about his life, why he did the things he did and the choices he was making – something that had not happened before. No social worker or police officer had asked him questions like this. Other speakers similarly talked about how someone had been willing to listen to them and stand beside them. They called them mentors and role models. They could just as easily have called them friends. But, as they each pointed out, someone took a risk for them – because they were troubled and troublesome young people who did not easily put their trust in anyone.
The message the speakers wanted us to hear was quite simple: don’t give up on these young people. Talk to them, listen to them, because at the end of the day, ‘facts’ are all very well, but what could make the difference, perhaps even the critical difference, is someone who takes that risk and persuades some young person or young adult that better choices can be made.
I came away both encouraged and puzzled. Encouraged because there are times when we can become dispirited and wonder whether what we do does make a difference to people’s lives and the choices they make. The speakers illustrated from their own lives just what a big difference another individual can make – though they may not always realise this. Hopefully that will have galvanised all those at the conference to return to their jobs with renewed enthusiasm and commitment – so necessary when all are under such pressure these days. But I was also left puzzled, wondering how, when the government asks us to supply the evidence-base (facts) for funding bids, we can build a case for interventions based on lived experience where the outcomes are not always known and could never be guaranteed.
People have a right to protest. That is the law. The police have a duty to enable protests, but also to ensure that law and order is maintained. They cannot show partiality or take sides or express any views on what people are protesting about. These are all difficult balances to uphold.
However, when passions run high, maintaining the King’s peace is not always easy for the police, especially when a protest is met by a counter protest. We saw that a week or two ago in Knowsley, Liverpool. The police were almost overwhelmed by those protesting against asylum seekers being accommodated in a local hotel, while others opposed them. A police officer was injured, fireworks were thrown and a police van was set alight. So I was concerned to learn that a similar protest was going to take place outside a hotel in Manvers, Rotherham, last Saturday.
Some years ago we had repeated protests and demonstrations on a regular basis over child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. Far-right groups were confronted by self-styled anti-fascist groups and there were ugly scenes in the town centre. Afterwards, people in both camps complained about police tactics – they were ‘heavy handed’ or ‘not robust enough’. So I decided to set up an independent Policing Protests Panel to observe.
The panel consisted of a small group of people, mainly drawn from my Independent Ethics Panel, who were prepared, sometimes at short notice, to commit some time to observing a protest and reporting back to me about how they thought the police had handled matters. The police agreed to co-operate fully with the panel.
We now have a familiar process in place. When a protest of the kind planned at Manvers happens, the panel are briefed beforehand on how the police intend to deal with it. Panel members then observe on the day and there is a subsequent de-briefing. In this way, on behalf of the public, I can get assurances about police actions and whether they were appropriate and proportionate. I can be assured, but just as crucially, the police can have the benefit of the observations of a ‘critical friend’ – the Protests Panel.
I also receive a briefing from the officer with overall strategic command (the gold commander). So I knew that on Saturday, South Yorkshire police had learnt lessons from what happened at Knowsley. I knew they would have a good number of officers and that they had invoked section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986, which allowed them to specify places where each group of protestors had to assemble.
This is how I ensure, on behalf of the public, that any protests in our county are policed fairly and proportionately.
It felt quite spring-like on some days last week. The sun shone, and in one field where there were lambs, I’m sure I saw the farmer put up a notice: ‘Gambol responsibly.’