Face up to gang culture and fight it, teachers told

19th March 2010 at 00:00
Ministers argue that schools are 'well placed' to tackle youth violence, but is concern about their reputation holding them back?

The growing issue of teenage gangs and how schools should react to them attracted wide publicity last week after the Government issued new guidance on what teachers should do to counter the problem.

On Thursday, politicians, police and teachers spoke at the Tackling Serious Youth Violence conference in London, held ahead of anti-knife crime events in schools this week.

The Government thinks teachers are "well placed" to spot gang activity and believes they are in an ideal position to act when one of their pupils displays key signs.

However, opinion on who should take responsibility for this increasingly high-profile problem was split at the event.

Some police officers even went as far as to acuse teachers of being unwilling to face up to the problem of pupils joining gangs because they wanted to protect their school's reputation.

Perhaps surprisingly, some unions partially agreed, warning that external pressures such as league tables and the policy of parental choice had made image more important than ever - at the expense of honesty about school safety.

Others thought lack of co-operation and organisation was the issue.

Even schools minister Vernon Coaker accepted there were problems. He said he would be in favour of funding fewer schemes, but with "larger pots of money for a longer period".

He also criticised local authorities which had cut, or were planning to cut, funding for youth workers and activities.

"I understand there are tough budgets, but we should do all we can to make sure young people get their fair share rather than the current short-term solution offered to them," he said.

"That's a message Government should consider and it's something for local authorities to consider as well."

And the high-profile Safer School Partnerships, which have sprung up in nearly 50 per cent of schools, were not safe from verbal assault. The partnerships see police officers based on school sites.

A lack of local co-ordination has prevented them from being effective, according to Sgt Sandy Pepper from the Metropolitan Police. She said a lack of organisation stopped officers working properly with teachers.

"There's no national governance so they are run differently in every area. Schools are inward looking - they want to protect children and their reputation - and this makes them reluctant to let other professionals in," she said.

Research published last year by teaching union the NASUWT found that gangs and gang culture have a profound impact on the minority of young people and schools affected.

At the event, NASUWT assistant general secretary Patrick Roach called for better support for teachers, but said they also needed to do more. "Many schools are reluctant to talk about gang cultures and deny that there are any problems associated with gang cultures in their areas," he said.

"It would be inappropriate to assume that the responses of schools were always misguided, but it is clear that a stark effect of the accountability regime in schools and of parental choice is that many schools are simply unwilling to talk about gangs and youth violence for fear that this could undermine the school's image and reputation."

This line won some support from Sir Paul Grant, head of Robert Clack School in Dagenham, who said a lack of long-term thinking from police and the Government was hampering teachers' efforts to tackle youth violence.

"It's so important for children to see familiar faces. If I had a quibble with the police it's their lack of continuity," he said. "Every school must be given the number of their borough commander, every school that wants a dedicated police officer should have one."

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?

Tips for teachers and schools from the Government's guidance

- Work in partnership with the police, youth offending teams and social workers.

- Teachers concerned about the safety of a child they think is a gang member should tell the member of staff with responsibility for child protection and make sure they call social services.

- Extended services and PSHE can help children at risk of joining gangs.

TEACHER PATROLS AND ID BADGES

Built in the middle of a troubled estate next to a "rival" secondary in one of the most working class areas in the country, it was no surprise gangs used to dominate Robert Clack School in Dagenham, East London.

Violence had been a fact of life for pupils and their peers at All Saints School for 20 years. Both schools had a huge Metropolitan police presence.

But that was before the arrival of headteacher Sir Paul Grant (pictured) at Robert Clack 14 years ago. He suspended 300 pupils during his first week in charge.

Now teachers patrol the local area before and after lessons, walking around high-rise tower blocks, supermarkets and streets so children feel safe on the way to school. And every pupil carries an ID badge to stop trespassers coming on site to cause problems.

Security was not Sir Paul's only priority. He managed to find extra funding for sports activities and set up an orchestra and a male voice choir. Former pupils include a male ballet dancer and member of the Britain's Got Talent winning dance group Diversity.

Some were sceptical that his ideas would catch on, but inspectors have now twice given Robert Clack the top rating.

"We walk the streets to show children we are there and we are looking out for them," Sir Paul says.

"We get children out of stairwells, we got them in uniform within four months. Residents used to say they looked like gang masters and it meant people put them down. We constantly intervene. We don't let children run past us, we don't ignore it if they look distressed. At first they are non-committal and we get the icy stare, but we don't give up."

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