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'History helps students to explore gang fears'

19th-century literature reveals similarities with the struggles of today's students, writes English teacher Sean Vernell

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19th-century literature reveals similarities with the struggles of today's students, writes English teacher Sean Vernell

The recent killings of young people on the streets of London are heart-wrenching for the families and communities affected.

Press coverage has not shed much light on why this recent spate of killings has taken place. It was the New Labour government under Tony Blair that introduced the soundbite “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”.

In reality, it was only the first part of this soundbite that was ever implemented. The New Labour government introduced over 700 new offences aimed at curbing young people’s behaviour. Stop-and-search increased targeting of young people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, which meant that you were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched if you were black than if you were white.

Today, once again, we are offered up the same platitudes and fear-mongering as in the past.

Centuries of gang crime

The new GCSE English language syllabus includes questions on 19th-century non-fiction texts. To help students prepare for these questions, I decided to offer my students a choice of four titles of discursive essays looking at 19th-century life which helped to contextualise this period of history.

Two young people at my college in North London have lost their lives over the past two years to gang-related violence, so it was not a surprise that many of them chose the essay title "Gangs: why they have always existed".

They researched articles from newspapers from the 19th century about gang-related crimes. They were all taken aback not only about how similar the crimes were, but also the way the press reported them.

The industrial revolution of this period saw a transformation in the way people lived their lives in sprawling industrial centres in Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. Wars and poverty across Europe also led to waves of migrant workers seeking a better life, only to find poverty, squalor and racism.

It was in this context that gangs rose in all of the major cities in Britain. In Manchester, a gang known as the Scuttlers were notorious for mass street brawls and running protection rackets around the music halls.

The Forty Elephants were an all-female crime gang, based in the Elephant and Castle area of London, who specialised in shoplifting and smash-and-grab raids and were led by a woman called Diamond Annie. For many of my students these themes were not historical ones but ones that existed today. They describe in their essays the fear that young people feel about the future and the pressure on them to achieve at any cost.

Fear for the future

When attempting to get to the root of the problem, the need to have power is often cited, by many commentators, as the main driver as to why young people join gangs and carry out violent crimes. However, being prepared to die for a post code is not a sign of young people being all-powerful – it is a reflection of the lack of power they have over their own lives.

The era of austerity has made the conditions of the young working class even more intolerable. The Equality and Human Rights Commission reported that those under 34 had suffered the biggest drop in income and employment since 2010.

There has also been a significant deterioration of young people’s mental health. Land transport accidents are the leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 5 and 19. Suicide is the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 20 and 34.

Many of these deaths are preventable, but we don’t hear the same howls of outrage and calls for tough action. It is by dealing with these underlining issues that we can begin to deal with the gang-related problems our young people get lured into.

'Priorities lie elsewhere'

The government needs to create apprenticeships that lead to real, well paid and secure jobs. The career, advice and community and youth centres that have been closed need to be reopened with well-trained staff and resources to operate effectively.

The drug trade needs to be legalised to undermine the control of organised crime and to take away the stigmatisation of addiction, so that those looking for some kind of respite from the pain of poverty can do so in controlled and safe conditions.

The historic funding cuts made by governments must be reversed to enable FE colleges to meet the long-term needs of our communities.

No young person should feel the need to take their own life, kill another or look for solace in drugs. Society has the means to create the conditions in which our young people can feel safe and secure.

The problem is with those who assume power over us and whose priorities lie elsewhere, and who are fearful of allowing young people the opportunities and conditions to be able to fully develop their own creative potential and ambitions.

Sean Vernell teaches GCSE English at City and Islington College in London and writes in a personal capacity

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