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Forcing schools to tackle knife crime could make things worse

Instead, we need to reduce youth violence through a public health approach underpinned by evidence, writes Leora Cruddas

Knife Crime

I was pleased to read that education secretary Damian Hinds recognises that knife crime is not just an issue for schools. He was responding to the consultation on tackling serious violence announced last week and is reported to have said that he will ensure we don’t add unnecessary burdens on teachers, and I hope leaders.

Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has also warned that schools can only do so much to prevent knife crime. In December 2018, Ms Spielman said: "While schools can play a role in educating young people about the danger of knives, they cannot be a panacea for this particular societal ill."

Unsurprisingly, given the title of the document – Consultation on a new legal duty to support a multi-agency approach to preventing and tackling serious violence – the media reporting has focused almost exclusively on the proposed new legal duty.

However, the home secretary Sajid Javid’s written statement on preventing serious violence, laid before parliament at the beginning of this month, speaks of a "public health" approach.

The consultation document provides a definition of this: “We need to take a multi-agency approach to understand the causes and consequences of serious violence, focused on prevention and early intervention, and informed by evidence and rigorous evaluation of interventions. This is often referred to as a "public health" approach. This requires a range of bodies and organisations to work together to tackle this issue including law enforcement agencies, education partners, local authorities, offender management services including youth offending services and health care and public health professionals taking joint action.”

A public health approach is not the same as a new legal duty.

The World Health Organisation has advocated that a public health approach be taken with regard to serious violence. The approach it advocates is:

  • Focused on a defined population, often with a health risk in common.
  • To be done with and for communities.
  • Not constrained by organisational or professional boundaries.
  • Focused on generating long-term as well as short-term solutions.
  • Based on data and intelligence to identify the burden on the population, including any inequalities.
  • Rooted in evidence of effectiveness to tackle the problem.

In fact, the consultation document offers three options:

  1. A new duty on specific organisations to have due regard to the prevention and tackling of serious violence.
  2. A new duty through legislating to revise Community Safety Partnerships.
  3. A voluntary non-legislative approach.

The government’s preferred option is the first, but it is the last of these that most truly reflects a public health approach – and is the approach successfully used in Scotland to reduce serious violence.

The consultation document goes on to describe the approach used in Scotland: “The Violence Reduction Unit in Scotland is a national centre of expertise on violence and as part of Police Scotland, has adopted a public health approach to serious violence.

"The Violence Reduction Unit has done so without specific statutory duties on different partners but has instead done so by working with health and education practitioners to spread awareness. It has also emphasised the importance of identifying and intervening at those times likely to make an optimum impact.

"The Violence Reduction Unit provides leadership on tackling serious violence, employing tough law enforcement tactics, such as stop and search campaigns, and working with partners on preventative early interventions. The Violence Reduction Unit provides training for practitioners in partner agencies to ensure they are informed about serious violence prevention and able to spot and feedback opportunities for intervention.”

In September 2018, the mayor of London announced the introduction of a Violence Reduction Unit which will provide London with greater capacity, expertise and coordination to identify the major causes of violence and deliver early interventions to help prevent the spread of violence. He should be commended for this.

In March 2019, the chancellor of the exchequer announced funding for an additional £100 million to tackle serious violence, which will be invested in Violence Reduction Units in areas of England and Wales most affected by knife crime.

We don’t need more moribund legal duties. We need the kind of leadership, capacity and evidence that a public health approach that Violence Reduction Units can offer.

I’d encourage all schools, trusts and colleges to respond to the consultation which concludes at the end of May, supporting option three. The government’s preferred option of a legal duty goes down the bleak and injudicious road of a compliance mindset, which will achieve nothing and may actually make things worse.

But a commitment to reducing youth violence through a public health approach, underpinned by evidence and a shared sense of moral and civic duty, will take us a long way.

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