How to keep your students safe

Nothing is more terrible than the death of a student, writes Eddie Playfair from the Association of Colleges

Knee-jerk reactions cannot be the answer to complex problems, but colleges and schools have a role to play in tackling violence

Youth safety, violence and criminality are seldom out of the headlines these days and we all share the sense of shock when another young person is killed on our streets. As individuals, we grieve for every one of them, but each of these personal tragedies also highlights wider social problems that we seem to be a long way from solving.  

For a college community, nothing is more terrible than the death of a student. The senseless loss of a promising life is very hard to deal with. I know this from my own experience as a principal. Every grieving family and every devastated friend is an urgent plea for us all to do something to make sure this never happens again.


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Colleges are places of safety, of respect and of non-violence, and such losses are an offence to everything we stand for. Colleges should be places of ambition, of hope, of joy and life – the very things that have been stolen from the young person we’ve lost.

Complex social problem

We need to avoid simplistic or knee-jerk responses because this is a complex social problem that can’t be attributed to a single cause and won’t be solved with a single solution. Contributory factors include the poverty and inequality that can allow criminal exploitation to thrive; new types of drug distribution, such as "county lines"; knife carrying and the availability of guns; mental health issues; and the lack of constructive alternatives.

So what can be done? Just as the causes are complex, so are the solutions. Any single response feels inadequate and there are no quick fixes. This is a national problem that affects all of us and requires action at every level of society.

First, we need to involve those young people who are closest to the problem in developing the solutions. Youth-led initiatives such as the Student Commission on knife crime in London, supported by Leaders Unlocked and involving students from seven London colleges, have generated an impressive manifesto for change that demands to be taken seriously. Young people need to be at the heart of any response, and colleges can help to mobilise them.

Listening to young people

We need to be there for our young people: as family members, professionals, friends and neighbours, listening to what they are saying, taking an interest in their lives, celebrating their achievements, supporting them and looking out for them as they face the challenges of modern life. Adults of all kinds need to be involved in young people’s lives – understanding, guiding and mentoring rather than staying aloof. We cannot give up on anyone. Those drawn into criminality or violence are also victims and they will need support if they are to find a way out and start making a positive contribution.

We also need to invest in young people. Over the past decade, public spending on youth provision, youth work, policing and education has been drastically cut. With more resources, we could do so much more to show our young people that they are a precious and valued part of the future of our society, rather than being a problem to be managed. We need to invest in the life-enhancing economy rather than the life-destroying one. The benefits of this investment are clear when they are set against the costs of the alternative.

Colleges and schools have a role to play in a coordinated multi-agency response involving government, police, local authority services, schools and colleges, young people themselves and their families – something long-term and systemic, which has the same scale and priority as the Prevent strategy.

Projects and interventions

At our recent Association of Colleges roundtable on youth safety with the Department for Education and the Home Office, college leaders spoke about the many educational projects and interventions they have developed and the evidence of what can make a difference. We need to learn from these and work in a joined-up way to:

  • Create institutional cultures in our colleges that reject violence and criminality and encourage work with young people, parents and communities to build resilience at all levels.
  • Develop the educational response, helping young people to understand the risks, how grooming and exploitation work, how to stay safe and avoid being drawn into violent or criminal activity and how to withdraw from it. There are some similarities here with counter-extremism and deradicalisation work.
  • Invest in education and youth work to provide more engaging, constructive and productive alternative activities for young people.
  • Invest in specialist services that support vulnerable young people at the point where they are facing difficult choices.
  • Provide more financial incentives for young people to make the right choices such as increased bursaries to recognise their commitment to education and personal and social development and paid leadership roles in mentoring and educating other young people.
  • Follow up all excluded and disengaged young people and those currently not in education, employment or training as part of providing every young person with opportunities for education, training and employment.

All of this requires a renewed commitment and an approach that places young people at the heart of all our plans for a better society.

Eddie Playfair is senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges

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