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'The knife-crime epidemic demands a complete rethink of safeguarding'

We must look again at how we protect the many young people at risk of being dragged into violent crime, says Shaun Brown

Amanda Spielman has warned that off-rolled pupils are at risk of being targeted by gangs

We must look again at how we protect the many young people at risk of being dragged into violent crime, says Shaun Brown

For every week of 2019, a teenager has lost their life to knife crime. As a former deputy head, my thoughts turn to the schools that would have called assemblies on Monday mornings to share the news that one of their pupils would not be returning – the lives tragically lost, families torn apart, and the futures destroyed by criminal conviction.

So, while debate around violent crime continues, how can secondary schools respond to this "national emergency"?

It is tempting to look for simple causes and solutions. Despite the paucity of evidence, some commentators have suggested that the rise in school exclusions is directly causing the rise in knife crime. Other articles in recent days call for intensive targeted work for all those young people already known to be linked to gangs.

But when it comes to complex problems, answers are rarely so simple. To jump to the quickest solutions is to do a disservice to the people affected by this problem.

Knife crime: 'Proactive' safeguarding

To really protect our young people from the devastating effects of knife crime, gangs and wider risks, we have to drop the focus on cure, and start looking at prevention.  And that begins with a rethink of what safeguarding actually means in schools. We need proactive safeguarding.

The statutory safeguarding guidance for schools, Keeping Children Safe in Education, is primarily focused on reactive safeguarding, led by child disclosures of abuse and neglect perpetrated in the home, and dominated by the procedures schools should use to recruit their staff. However, in my experience, it is only a tiny fraction of students who are at risk of or experiencing harm from these threats.

But is a traditional safeguarding system that is heavily built around disclosures really the best approach?

We have to better understand what happens as young people become teenagers if we are to keep them safe as they gain more agency and independence. This is not about Kevin from Harry Enfield and Chums.

Risk-taking is a normal and, to some extent, healthy aspect of adolescence, but it is often out of step with the emotional maturity to manage impulses and assess the consequences of actions. As adolescents get older, they have an increasing capacity to override the wishes and demands of family, authority figures and the state.

It is unrealistic to simply tell a young person that they must disengage from harmful activities or expect that they will recognise and disclose to adults when they are at risk. This is why a multi-layered, whole-school approach to safeguarding is imperative.

It is unrealistic to imagine that the teens at risk will fall into a distinct group for us to highlight and easily “intervene” with. Ofsted, in recent research, has found that children who are not typically recognised as "vulnerable" are frequently at risk of criminal exploitation. Meanwhile, a children’s commissioner report, Keeping Kids Safe, suggests that approximately 60,000 children are in some way gang-associated: yet, through their detailed research, only 6,250 have been identified by children’s services. This means that there are many more children at risk than we know about.  We can only address this with a universal and proactive approach to safeguarding.

For safeguarding in schools to catch pupils at risk without disclosure, before that risk becomes acute, it must be proactive. At The Difference, our safeguarding approach is built on three key premises:

1. Proactive safeguarding involves every adult and every child

Behaviour is a language of communication and the first indicator that a young person is unsafe may be sudden, unexplained or unexpected change to their behaviour. For example, the first sign that a child has experienced a trauma – like witnessing violence, or being sexually exploited – might be a change in their behaviour, like (suddenly or slowly) becoming more withdrawn or more confrontational and defiant.

It is possible to create a safeguarding culture which is proactive in responding to these changes. In my role as deputy head of Thomas Tallis school in Greenwich, we acted on the basis that all unexpected and unexplained behaviours could be causes for concern; even (or especially) when that behaviour is challenging. (As with pupils who may be being repeatedly fixed-term excluded, and on their way to permanent exclusion.)

At Tallis, trauma-informed practice was a key part of safeguarding training for all staff. All staff members, from teachers to receptionists, were encouraged to be aware of unexpected changes in behaviour among pupils and understand how and when to flag them for investigation. While it might not seem much for a pupil to appear unusually withdrawn, volatile or overly tired, if this is considered alongside five separate reports from other staff members identifying similar interactions, it can provide a clear sign of a more serious issue to be investigated.

To recognise these revealing signs early, it is essential that all staff can separate the challenge that these behaviours might present from their underlying implications.

2. Every adult means every adult: we must include parents in safeguarding

Very often parents and carers are in the best position to recognise the first crucial indicators of concern for their child: not coming back at agreed times, uncertain of who they are meeting, money disappearing or new clothes appearing. However, feelings of failure, the risk of judgement about their parenting and fear of unknown repercussions are a significant barrier to seeking help from school.

This barrier is reinforced by the often fleeting and academically focused interactions parents have with school and compounded through the structure of meetings held in response to behaviour or attendance concerns. Engaging effectively with parents is one of the key outcomes highlighted by chief inspector Amanda Spielman in her commentary on Ofsted’s recent report into knife crime

At Tallis, we ran coffee mornings, half-termly workshops and start-of-the-year "welcome meetings" to help build meaningful and trusting relationships between school staff and parents. This presented the opportunity to provide advice on the differences between challenging adolescent behaviour and real causes for concern. We promoted a culture where parents and carers felt safe to flag concerns and support change and intervention.

On one occasion, a parent who reported an unusual transaction on her bank statement helped to uncover a number of students who had been drawn into a gang that was using children to launder money through their bank accounts.

To protect students from the threat of gangs at the local shops, we drew on support from parents to impose a 4pm curfew, which removed the opportunity for grooming to take place under the cover of students gathering. This might seem outside the realm of a school, but the threats posed to young people have evolved and so must our response if we are to keep young people safe.

Often schools can struggle to engage parents in this way because staff feel under-confident, and there is no formal training or sharing of best practice. That is why I am drawing together mainstream best practice and the successful work at the Anna Freud Family School on parent coaching, to develop specific training for school leaders.

3. Every child means every child: we can involve pupils in peer safeguarding

A poster asking pupils to look after each other may not seem like much, but the philosophy behind it is crucial. At Thomas Tallis, a culture of peer-to-peer support fed directly into our safeguarding response.

This included bringing in external organisations. We worked closely with the Amy Winehouse Foundation, for instance, to develop a programme of assemblies and workshops for the whole school focusing on peer pressure and self-esteem. Rather than didactically telling pupils “This is wrong”, “Don’t do this”, the focus was on helping pupils to look out for each other, understand when it’s time to share worries about a peer with someone else and to consider: “What is my responsibility as their friend, to help keep them safe?”

This was reinforced by the school’s approach to harmful and abusive behaviour. Instead of using the term "bullying", we used restorative meetings to help students understand specifically how their behaviours had been harmful and where relationships were abusive. This gave students themselves a language to recognise harm, and staff a structure to respond effectively.

Over the past two years, I have been taking my experience from working in pupil-referall units and in Thomas Tallis to co-develop the ideas behind The Difference leadership development programme.  The Difference exists to raise the status and expertise of working with vulnerable children. Key to this is making sure leadership teams are given the support to be strategic and whole-school about safeguarding. We are looking for great leaders to help us share the best safeguarding practice.

Proactive safeguarding isn’t a simple line for politicians; it’s not an easy intervention that someone else can run in your school; and it isn’t going to eradicate complex problems overnight. But, if we can build and share best practice among school leaders, it can mean increased safety for some of the young people whose futures balance on a knife edge.  

Shaun Brown is head of programme at The Difference, an organisation that exists to improve the outcomes of vulnerable children by raising the status and expertise of those who educate them.

He is a specialist in whole-school inclusion, trauma-aware practice, multi-agency working and contextual safeguarding. He advised Ofsted on its research in this area, published this morning

For further info on training in safeguarding, click here

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