After a spate of highly-publicised attacks in recent months, knife crime among young people is firmly on the national agenda.
In the first nine weeks of 2019, ten teenage victims — including Jaden Moodie (14), Yousef Makki (17) and Jodie Chesney (also 17) — were stabbed to death in needless acts of violence. In nearly all of these cases, those who perpetrated the violence were aged 18 and under.
In a bid to curb such violence, Home Secretary Sajid Javid recently proposed that teachers (along with doctors and nurses) should be required by law to report children feared to be caught up in crime. Controversially, he also suggested that teachers would be held accountable if they failed to report such a case.
Naturally, these proposals have garnered justifiable criticism from teachers’ unions, who argue they are unreasonable and unworkable. For many school and college leaders, the proposals are simply an attempt by the government to create “scapegoats” out of teachers and avoid tackling the root causes of crime such as cuts to community funding.
As role models and educators, teachers are well-placed to provide support and intervene in troubling situations. But given the increase in teenage murders, is there more we can do to reduce youth violence? How much responsibility should schools take in the first place? And isn’t this just another burden on the teaching profession?
Before we attempt to answer these questions, it’s useful to provide some context about the scale of the problem.
Knife crime: the facts
In the 12 months leading up to September 2018, there were 39,818 knife offences across the UK. Of these, 285 were fatal — the highest figure since 1946. This has risen for four years in a row after a long-term decline.
While stabbings have actually reduced slightly in 2019, the statistics are still sobering. Nearly half (41%) of all offenders in London are teenagers or even young children. Across England and Wales, one in five offenders were under 18 — the highest figure in eight years.
Young BAME (black and minority ethnic) teenage boys and young men of a working-class background are disproportionately affected. 25% of knife crime victims in 2018 were black, despite black British people making up only 3% of the wider population.
Arguably, the primary cause is economics. Statistics indicate that violent crime follows poverty, and these maps of London show a clear correlation between the two.
Misinformed polemics from contrarians may have some thinking otherwise, but the statistics above do not implicate racial or cultural groups. Deprivation is the common denominator.
The reason so many young BAME men get caught up in knife crime is that, among the broad ethnic groups, black and Asian people are more likely to live in a deprived neighbourhood. Indeed, the fact that Glasgow — a city that is almost 90% white — was until recently dubbed as the “murder capital of Europe” shatters the racist myth of “black-on-black violence”.
Before we jump to conclusions, then, we need to acknowledge that the less quantifiable aspects to knife crime — including poverty, broken homes, cuts to policing, mental health problems, and a lack of public institutions — show that it is far from a simple issue.
Doing so helps us to empathise and understand why so many young people feel pressured into carrying weapons — leaving us better equipped to anticipate the problem and respond in a proactive manner.
Aren’t teachers already doing enough?
To an extent, yes. Part of the reason why government proposals come as such a surprise is that schools are already required to work with other agencies when it comes to safeguarding students — particularly those at risk of crime.
In 2004, the Children Act was passed as part of the Every Child Matters agenda. This act followed the inquiry into the murder of 8-year-old Victoria Climbié, which highlighted how she was let down by the agencies that should have protected her.
The law established Local Safeguarding Children Boards to improve the way that the relevant public bodies in each local area co-operate to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
In 2017, these boards were replaced by the Children and Social Work Act, giving greater autonomy to the three primary “safeguarding partners”: local authorities (including schools), the police, and NHS clinical commissioning groups.
In September 2018, the government updated the Keeping children safe in education document, which provides statutory guidance for schools and colleges. The updates suggest that all staff should be alert to children who are “showing signs of being drawn into anti-social or criminal behaviour, including gang involvement and association with organised crime groups”.
Importantly, the document stresses that “staff should not assume a colleague or another professional will take action and share information that might be critical in keeping children safe”. It also underscores how a school’s designated safeguarding contact will take the lead in liaising with other public bodies and agencies.
Given that all these frameworks are already in place in schools, it’s little wonder that teachers feel the new legal duty represents another yet burden. Ofsted agrees, arguing that the responsibility for rising knife crime cannot be "landed on schools in the absence of properly funded local services”.
Responding to incidents of knife crime in the classroom
Whether the responsibility for tackling knife violence among students lies with schools — and by extension, teachers — remains a contentious issue.
In their Safeguarding children and young people in education from knife crime report, Ofsted found that violence on school grounds is “extremely rare”. The report also found that schools are working “valiantly” to tackle the issue despite not having the “ability to counter the deep-seated societal problems behind the rise in knife crime”.
As for the reasons why young people get involved in crime, the Ofsted report is unambiguous: "almost invariably, these children have experienced poverty, abuse or neglect or are living within troubled families”.
For those of us teaching in the most deprived areas, there’s a chance we’ll come face-to-face with crime-related incidents, regardless of whether or not it’s our legal duty to intervene and report them.
In such an instance, the lines between good and bad can often be blurred. In neighbourhoods where gang culture is prevalent, some young people feel that carrying a knife for their self-defence is justified.
Given that bright, high-performing students can easily become embroiled in crime through no fault of their own, are calls for harsh punishments for carrying a knife missing the mark?
Does punishment work?
For those who are unfamiliar with the vagaries of the teacher-student relationship, the idea that a young person should be punished for bringing a knife into school is clear-cut. “The student is a bad egg”. “Carrying “for protection” is not a valid excuse”. “The student should be expelled, if not arrested”.
However, the truth on-the-ground isn’t always as crystal clear as it seems from afar. As one anonymous teacher account highlights, what if the student carrying the knife is from an abusive home and was given the weapon by their parents or guardians? In such an instance, shouldn’t it be our duty to give the vulnerable student our full support and guidance instead of judgement?
Expelling a student arguably exacerbates the problem. Indeed, compelling evidence seems to show a correlation between the number of exclusions from school and knife offences. Through a policy of zero tolerance, students are at risk of becoming lost to the system.
Of course, many teachers will want to keep violence away from their classrooms at all costs and create a haven for students from troubled or deprived backgrounds.
The safety of all students, as well as teachers, is paramount. But that doesn’t mean giving up on children who are in danger of becoming embroiled in crime. Doing so can have tragic implications — not just for individuals, but for the whole community.
As such, the onus should not be on individual teachers, doctors, and nurses, but instead on bolstering strong signposting and support networks for vulnerable students.
What’s the best course of action?
Earlier, we mentioned that Glasgow used to be known as “the murder capital of Europe”. This is no longer the case. Thanks to a concerted effort between public bodies in Scotland, Glasgow has not only significantly reduced its crime rate but has turned around the reputation of the city — all in the space of just over a decade.
Faced with an epidemic of knife violence, Scottish authorities formed the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) in 2005 to coordinate a “public health response” to directly address the root causes of the problem. The results are clear for all to see: homicides have more than halved and are down to the lowest figure in 40 years.
The unit’s presence in schools has had a massive impact on the success of the scheme.
The VRU based its approach on research that suggested that students who are most likely to get embroiled in crime are rarely deterred by fear-based strategies. As Will Linden, VRU’s co-deputy editor says, such students “have already seen deaths and prisons” and are “very aware of consequences.”
As an alternative, the unit brought in older students as mentors, got them to run scenario-based lessons for younger children, and ran drop-in clinics for students who wanted to talk about personal problems in private. In doing so, the unit gave students ownership of the problem in an engaging, non-patronising way that provided a safe environment and related to their day-to-day lives.
Since forming, the scheme — which has trained up more than 6,000 mentors — has cut down on youth violence, reduced truancy and school exclusions, and has proved to be self-sustaining because it doesn’t rely on state funds. It has also massively reduced the burden on teachers struggling to support vulnerable students. All in all, it’s been a massive success.
Perhaps schools in cities with high knife offence rates such as London, Birmingham and Manchester can learn a thing or two from the VRU model.
Instead of giving in to zero-tolerance rhetoric and adopting tough-on-crime measures, schools can instead offer an olive branch to students — giving them the means to actively tackle the problem on their own terms.
Of course, creating a successful scheme in schools requires committed collaboration between different public bodies and school departments. No one is saying it’s going to be easy, but education is the most powerful weapon there is. As VRU’s motto goes, “violence is preventable, not inevitable”.