This week sport has offered us another wonderful life lesson. Although many of our students know little about cricket, the game that consumed me for 30 years, they may be aware now of the name Ollie Robinson. After making a very promising start to an international sporting career, he is suspended from the team after the discovery of racist and sexist tweets from a decade ago.
There has been much debate in the UK about the tweets and the sanction. Politicians and the media arguing about when it is that teenagers should be forgiven for their past misdemeanours. This is the perfect fuel for programmes like our own Learning for Life, or Personal Social and Health Economic Education as it is often referred to in the UK.
Excellent professionals like Karl Hopwood have been delivering the same message consistently and entertainingly since then, and I can sense his ‘eye rolling’ at another prime case for his updated powerpoint display. It was with a strong sense of deja vu that I watched a middle aged man laboriously mansplain on one news channel yesterday, that social media posts are a permanent record and should be treated with care. This was the mantra of all those involved in the support of young people a decade ago and more, with Facebook on the scene by 2005, it felt baffling to me and I’m sure younger members of the audience to be patronised on this again.
Being smug about it doesn’t help though. Teenagers get it wrong. Jackie Cox did an amazing job for decades through her work in the UK boarding sector in explaining why this happens and she was one of the first speakers to interpret scientific finds about brain function into sound advice for staff and parents. The brain’s recalibration, and fluctuations in chemistry through the teenage years suggests that there will be mistakes, mishaps, misunderstandings and literally mindless behaviour.
This is why social media is such a challenge. All of my teenage moments were played out in the mid 1980s when the closest I got to transmission of my views were the odd outbursts aimed at my parents when I was especially disgruntled with a perfectly reasonable decision of theirs. Now reactions to events are swift, public and permanent. We have been advising, cajoling, reminding and supporting for over a decade now, and nothing has really changed for our young people - or has it?
In my view, students have got better at regulating themselves in this space. Maybe not much better, but better. This came through more widespread and higher quality education, a creep similar to the inexorable increase in grades as we got better at teaching towards the outcomes desired. The Ollie Robinson case will serve as a reminder and schools should use it as such.
Schools are better at this too, they pounce on such posts and deal with it swiftly, trying not to stigmatize but educate instead. That is the easy bit, the next part becomes much more challenging - when should these posts become ‘in the past’ in the way that the points ‘earned’ from your erratic and over zealous driving in your 20s disappears from the license?
This is the nub of the Robinson debate. On one hand, these posts are a decade old, but if I cast my mind back to life in schools in 2010 this would have raised alarm bells then as it does now. I worked in a school which had a very clear and enthusiastically enforced lack of tolerance for racism. It is possible that the media is more sensitised to this issue now due to the events of the last few years and George Floyd’s grisly demise, but good schools were working hard to stamp racism out 10 years ago and well before.
The key to dealing with issues such as this then is the key now. Is he contrite? Has he learned from his mistake? Will he refrain from this in the future and what support does he need to ensure he doesn’t slip back? However, in focussing on Robinson, we miss a crucial point that colleagues at Riverside seized upon immediately - the damage done to others. Whatever Robinson did or didn’t mean, whatever his intent, whatever his background - those tweets cause offence, hurt and despair now, as they would have done at the time. Maybe we should think more about how we tackle that, rather than when he next plays cricket for England?
It is perfectly possible that Robinson is a flawed character, and if so he will feel the wrath of the media and the governing bodies again - rightly so. It is also possible he posted without thought about the damage he would cause and without malice, in which case he should be offered another chance after a meaningful and appropriate sanction - mistakes are how you learn, and if we live in a world where teenagers cannot make any mistakes then I fear for what is ahead of us.