At the cutting edge

10th October 2008 at 01:00
No good can come from carrying weapons, but why do so many teenagers think it's the answer?

When one of Britain's leading exam boards decided to drop Carol Ann Duffy's controversial poem "Education for Leisure", Mike Cresswell, director-general of QCA, based his decision on "concerns about the topic of the poem in light of the current climate surrounding knife crime".

Most teachers ran to the defence of the poem - which starts with the line: "Today I am going to kill something, anything" - saying it inspired healthy debate rather than actual violence.

For a few schools though, protecting pupils from the threat of knife crime has become an almost daily reality. At St Aloysius Roman Catholic College, an all-boys school in Highgate, north London, six or seven senior members of staff make it their duty to protect pupils during their twice-daily commute. Every morning and afternoon, teachers accompany all the boys on their short walk from the bus stop to the school gates. They sometimes get on the bus themselves to stop their pupils hanging around Archway - a busy and potentially dangerous transport hub near the school.

There's a reason for their caution: two of their pupils were stabbed to death within seven months of each other. Martin Dinnegan, 14, was killed last June, about a mile from St Aloysius, while another former pupil was killed last Christmas, having left school a term earlier following his GCSEs.

"Last year was a catastrophic time for us," says Danny Coyle, deputy head. "It made a huge impact on the school. We told the boys about Martin in a year group assembly and it was a tearful experience. There were huddles of energetic, tough boys crying their eyes out."

St Aloysius felt compelled to do more than simply address knife crime in PSHE lessons. Staff started to escort the boys two-and-a-half years ago, but it became more formalised following the local stabbings. "It's reassured worried parents that we will be there to protect their children in this area at least," says Tom Mannion, headteacher. "It's hugely labour intensive, but if we stopped for a month, what could happen?"

The answer comes from a 14-year-old boy who describes how a knife was pulled on him and two friends near their home in Holloway. Over a single week this June, two more pupils from the school were attacked by boys wielding knives on London transport. Both escaped shaken but relatively unscathed.

Although knife crime has remained largely stable over the past decade (and has actually dropped in the capital over the past two years), young people are disproportionately affected, the British Crime Survey shows. Teenagers in London are the most likely victims of knife crime. Metropolitan Police figures reveal that, since the start of 2008, more than 50 teenagers have been killed in Britain (at the time of going to press), 27 of those in London. That's one more than the 26 murders of teenagers investigated by the Metropolitan Police during the whole of last year.

And these shocking figures hide the extent of non-fatal incidents. The number of children admitted to hospital with stab wounds has doubled in the past five years, the latest NHS statistics show. Among under-16s there was an 88 per cent rise in stab wounds, from 95 in 2002-03 to 179 in 2006- 07.

Since May last year, schools have had fresh powers to search pupils suspected of carrying weapons. They also have the option of introducing airport-style metal detectors or security arches at entrances. However, many schools shun such measures, believing they are unnecessarily expensive, ineffective and even counter-productive.

One London headteacher told The TES Magazine that pupils could easily throw knives over her school's 2km perimeter if they wanted to get weapons on site. Another said that determined pupils could always find a way round sanctions, possibly stealing knives from the school kitchens or design and technology department.

It is not the answer for St Aloysius either. "We won't have a knife arch in school," says Danny. "It sends out the wrong message. Our boys don't carry knives as far as we know and if a problem did arise, we'd rather rely on trust and good relationships to sort it out. The boys let us know if pupils are carrying anything they shouldn't."

The national Be Safe project offers an alternative. It has about 330 trainers going into UK schools, educating pupils about the hard facts: namely that carrying a knife increases the chance of being stabbed. Kevin Everard, an ex-policeman and co-founder of the project, says his attitude has changed since working closely with young people.

"Police can become quite blinkered and just see kids as a pain, but I've come to realise that a lot of them have had a tough time. They're making choices out of ignorance: they believe that if they carry a knife they won't get hurt.

"The majority haven't got it in them to push a knife into another human being. You can't stab someone from three feet away; you have to look into their eyes, play God and decide that they should die. But then they must be prepared for the repercussions. That's what we get them to think about."

The approach appears to be working. Of 1,000 young people who admitted to being habitual knife carriers, just 8.5 per cent re-offended after the session and only 1.7 per cent of those were in possession of a knife, according to an evaluation by the Newham Youth Offending Team.

Most perpetrators Kevin comes across have either witnessed violence or been victims themselves. They carry a knife out of fear or fashion - to protect their reputation as well as their person. When Be Safe trainers ask pupils in urban schools whether they have ever carried a knife, a third of hands typically go up. But few carry them habitually. Instead, carrying a knife from time to time is usually a response to a considered risk assessment, based on where they go or who they may encounter.

When trainers ask if pupils know others "not in this room" who carry knives, all hands usually go up. This supports recent findings from a survey compiled by the Youth Justice Board, which found a 12 per cent increase in the number of teenagers carrying knives since 2002, including a sharp rise among girls. Most will be easily accessible kitchen knives.

As such, knife amnesties will never be as effective as changing attitudes, Kevin argues. Targeted searches on so-called troublemakers may also worsen relationships rather than improve safety. "It's not always the bad eggs that carry knives," Kevin says. "A bullied pupil who tries but fails to get help may well arm himself. A frightened, armed child can be incredibly dangerous."

Be Safe relies on the facts to discourage pupils. It tells them that over- 16s who carry a knife are likely to be prosecuted, and that a knife carried for protection is likely to be turned against the carrier in a fight. It hopes that that at least will make young people think twice before arming themselves on the streets.



February 2007: Maximum sentence for carrying a knife rises from two to four years.

May 2007: Schools in England are given the legal right to search pupils suspected of carrying knives. Headteachers are given guidance on airport- style metal detectors.

October 2007: It becomes illegal to sell a knife to under 18s - up from 16.

April 2008: Samurai swords are banned in England and Wales.

May 2008: The Government launches a graphic pound;3 million advertising campaign to deter youngsters from carrying knives.

June 2008: The prosecution age for carrying a knife is lowered from 18 to 16. Under 16s are likely to be cautioned for a first offence andor referred to a knife education programme. Parenting orders may also be handed out.

July 2008: Sir Paul Stephenson says knife crime has overtaken terrorism as the Met's "number one priority".

September 2008: Craig Marshall, 19, becomes the 27th teenager to be shot or stabbed in London this year - more than the entire death count for teenagers in 2007.


The World Report on Violence and Health, published in 2002, shows Britain in a favourable light compared to other countries when it comes to youth violence.

- Colombia has 84.4 killings per 100,000 young people.

- Across Africa, there is an average of 17.6 killings per 100,000.

- Russia has 18 killings per 100,000.

- America has 11 killings per 100,000.

- The UK has 0.9 killings per 100,000.


- Train teenagers to act as mentors to younger pupils. A government commissioned report found that a scheme run by the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation helped change the culture behind knife crime. Visit

- Discuss knife crime and its consequences in assemblies, PSHE and citizenship lessons. Resources and games are available at,,

- Work with local partners, including police, youth offending teams and theatre groups.

- Provide easily accessible personal support for bullied or fearful pupils.

- Focus on local youth support services and employment opportunities for school leavers. Giving young people something to strive for can make them reconsider carrying a knife. and

- Investigate parent support programmes for those who are struggling to cope with their children - provides a national database of parenting programmes.


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