How can schools tackle knife crime?

To what extent are schools to blame for a rise in knife crime - and how best can they tackle it, asks Caroline Henshaw

knife crime, rise in knife crime, schools and knife crime

"The school did not want to hear that this was a vulnerable kid who was hanging out with the wrong people. These [older] guys were grooming him and they wanted him to get excluded – they did it deliberately.”

Kester Brewin, a maths teacher from south-east London is describing the story of Tom. It is a story that may sound familiar to any teacher who has experience working with at-risk teenagers.

Fifteen-year-old Tom was chuffed when a group of older boys invited him to hang out one weekend, and had thought nothing of it when one of them asked him to hold his rucksack. Seconds later, the police had appeared and pulled a knife from inside. Tom suddenly found himself being arrested.

The nightmare only continued when he got to school on Monday. Soon after he entered the gates, he was summoned to the head’s office and told his time there was over. The school’s “zero tolerance on knives” policy meant Tom – not his real name – would have to leave. He was given two options: be permanently excluded or quietly transfer elsewhere. He chose to transfer.

Brewin knows other boys who have been made to move schools because of similar incidents, which, he argues, has left them more vulnerable to exploitation. He says schools in his area regularly force such children to transfer to avoid the bad publicity.

“All the schools are complicit in the same game because they’re all trying to reduce their numbers of exclusions,” he says. “There needs to be some means by which schools can act in the best interests of the child and see there are situations where [children] are victims themselves. It’s about what schools think they are. If a school thinks of themselves as a family, then you embrace them, not exclude. If they see themselves as a brand or a business, they just want to protect the brand.”

Brewin’s previous articles for Tes arguing against zero-tolerance policies on knives in schools have proved controversial at a time when violent crime is on the rise. Last year, knife crime in England and Wales hit its highest level since records began. In the capital alone, 76 people were stabbed to death in 2018. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has renewed calls for schools to use “knife wands” to detect blades – 250 have adopted them so far – after four men were killed over the new year.

Those involved also seem to be getting younger. A fifth of all murder victims in London in 2018 were under 18, and the NHS says the number of children admitted with stab wounds has more than doubled in five years. A study by the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel found a spike in the number of attacks on under-16s between 4pm and 6pm on school days, the majority of which were within 5km of their homes.

Police have warned parts of the country are turning into the “Wild West”, with children as young as nine now carrying blades. Politicians have responded with calls for stiffer sentences and tougher laws, blaming everything from social media to drill music.

In January, the government said it would introduce Knife Crime Prevention Orders, meaning children aged 12 and over who are caught with a blade can have restrictions placed on their movements and social media use. Home secretary Sajid Javid vowed to do “everything in my power to tackle the senseless violence traumatising communities”.

But behind the headlines, opinion remains divided on the reasons for the rise in knife crime and the best ways to tackle it.

Zero tolerance

Yvonne Lawson, a former teacher whose son Godwin was stabbed to death in 2010, argues police and schools must take a tough stance. She was a key advocate for the “two strikes” law passed in 2015, which is meant to ensure anyone caught twice with a knife goes to jail for at least six months.

“No parent should have a child stabbed and no school should facilitate it by lowering safety standards,” she says. “Our research and the Met Police find that young people do not trust the police to help them. Many young people are carrying, and many are stabbed with their own knives.

“Until this strategy is embedded across London, with NHS mental health resources deployed, interrupters and interveners in place, and solid support to get at-risk young people into jobs, there need to be consequences for intending to use and actually using knives.”

Others say “zero tolerance on knives” policies have little impact – and, worse, that rather than helping, such approaches can even be counterproductive. Ofsted’s regional director for London, Mike Sheridan, has warned that “overly rigid” school policies

on knives are ensnaring vulnerable pupils, including self-harming girls, while being exploited by gangs to get pupils like Tom excluded.

Sheridan’s argument is based on research by the regulator into how London’s schools are tackling knife crime, which is due to be published this spring.

“Zero-tolerance policies can be extremely effective, but schools need to take proactive steps to protect children from gang members who seek to exploit the rules,” he wrote in a recent blog.

“At the same time, to stop gangs being able to ‘divide and rule’, schools need to discuss their approach with their neighbours and the police.”

Opinions are just as divided over the root causes of the rise in knife crime and particularly the suggestion that it can be linked to school exclusions. A report for Barnardo’s and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime last year found excluded children were “at serious risk” of being sucked into violence because there are not enough places in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), leaving them out on the street with nowhere to go.

Similarly, the Home Office’s Serious Violence Strategy, published in April 2018, argued that low school performance, bullying others, truancy and school exclusion were all high-risk factors for being involved in violent crime.

But a report by the Ministry of Justice published months later found that only a tiny proportion of youngsters caught with knives had recently been excluded. The data, it concluded, shows exclusions are not a “significant driver of youth knife possession offending overall”.

“It’s all an emerging picture at the moment,” says Mark Burns-Williamson, chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and member of the home secretary’s Serious Violence Taskforce. “Some of the traditional perceptions around patterns of crime are being totally changed because of the lengths these criminals are going to.”

Burns-Williamson blames much of the rise in knife violence on budget cuts to schools, police and youth services, and their impact on children’s mental health. The former school governor says rising exclusions and the “fragmentation” of the education system have also made it harder to track at-risk young people.

“If we’re not careful, we’ll create a generation of young people who are lost to the system,” he adds.

But ask the pupils themselves, and the explanations take on a different slant.

At a recent conference in London, four teenage boys explained to a room of educators how poverty, racial stereotyping and a lack of faith from adults have pushed them or their family towards violence.

Lost to the system

One described how his brother joined a gang after being permanently excluded several times because he had “given up hope with education”. His brother’s friends, the boy said, gave him the support and acceptance he craved but had never felt in the classroom.

“Exclusion from school, exclusion from society, gave them nowhere to turn but to each other,” said the teenager, who wishes to remain anonymous. “Teachers and adults need to understand what pushes young people down the street in order to help them.”

Another boy said schools needed to encourage children to believe in themselves, whatever their background. “Permanent exclusion is never the right decision to make for a child. Why? Because once you’ve been permanently excluded, you have nothing to prove,” he said.

Dr Tony Sewell is chief executive of Generating Genius, which runs Stem programmes for disadvantaged children aged 14-18. He says boys – particularly black boys – often feel alienated by an education system that both polices and fears them, a problem that is compounded if they don’t have a positive male role model in their lives.

“There is a kind of disaffection, which I think has its roots in us not understanding enough about male development,” he says, describing it as an isolation that “comes from a real feeling that you’re very problematic as a boy”.

“There is a stereotype that boys are the naughty ones at the back of the classroom and girls are the good ones at the front. The boy is quickly learning that disaffection and self-exclusion – not just exclusion by others but by himself – are actually an option. And girls are learning [that] conformity and working in the system is a good thing.”

Faced with so much conflicting information, some officials – including London’s mayor, Metropolitan Police chief Cressida Dick and the home secretary – have looked to Scotland for inspiration in how to stop the violence.

In 2005, the country won the dubious accolade of being dubbed the most dangerous place in the developed world by the United Nations after a record year of homicides. A study by the World Health Organisation published the same year named Glasgow the “murder capital of Europe”.

The city was overrun with gangs who were notorious for slashing people in the face. Faced with an epidemic of bloodshed, authorities set up the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) to coordinate a “public health response” to tackle the root causes of violence. The results have been impressive: homicides in Scotland hit their lowest point for over 40 years in 2017-18, while hospital admissions for assault with a sharp object fell 59 per cent in the decade to 2016-17.

In schools, the VRU based its approach on research that showed fear-based strategies rarely deter the students who are most likely to be sucked into crime. “These people have already seen deaths, they’ve already seen prisons…they’re very aware of consequences,” says Will Linden, its co-deputy director. “They’re already too ingrained in that behaviour.”

Instead, the unit gave young people ownership of the problem. They recruited older students as mentors, particularly boys who would not normally volunteer, and got them to run scenario-based lessons for the younger children. Students also ran drop-in clinics for anyone who wanted to talk through specific problems in private. “A 16- or 17-year-old in the school is always going to have more sway than we will,” explains Linden.

From small beginnings in three schools, the scheme has expanded rapidly and more than 6,000 mentors have been trained so far. As well as cutting violence, it has had other beneficial side effects: truancy and exclusion rates have fallen dramatically, attainment has improved and many of the mentors have become youth leaders. Crucially, the scheme has proved to be self-sustaining because it does not rely on state funds. “You always have to ask what it is going to look like when the money runs out, because it always runs out,” says Linden.

Caroline Henshaw is a reporter for Tes

This article originally appeared in the 22 February 2019 issue under the headline “On a knife edge”