Fierce tales of two cities

26th July 1996 at 01:00
Jenny Pearce and John Pitts discovered pupils can protect themselves from attack by pooling self-help strategies. Tragic events like the Dunblane massacre and the recent attack in Wolverhampton are mercifully rare. However, the risk of injury to school children from road accidents, drugs, alcohol and cigarette misuse and from bullying and violence is all too common.

These recent horrific events have put the question of school student safety into the public eye. At present, the debate is restricted to enhancing physical security through strengthening school gates and fences, installing video cameras and putting locks on inner as well as outer doors.

While this is an essential protection from stranger danger it has two problems. It runs the risk of cutting the school off from its local community, limiting its potential as a community resource. Also concentrating on physical security deflects us from focusing on the importance of social measures and "safe cultures and practices" which are developed as a matter of routine by many school pupils.

We need to encourage pupils to talk about their knowledge and experiences as perpetrators, victims and observers of everyday violence and crime. We need to examine the self-help tools they develop to protect themselves from the realities of danger on the street and in the school. We must link day-to-day experiences of victimisation to the deliberations of policy-makers in police forces, housing agencies and education and social work departments.

Our research suggests that pupils' safety could be enhanced through listening to pupils' experiences and opening up communication between the school and its community.

In our study, undertaken with 388 pupils from a large secondary school in a high-crime neighbourhood in east London, 52 per cent reported having been assaulted in the preceding year. Almost two-thirds of the most serious incidents occurred within a quarter of a mile of the school, during the lunch breaks or at the end of the school day. This highlighted the continuity between the violence between pupils who also knew each other as neighbours, friends or enemies.

In our survey 72 per cent of the respondents said that the perpetrators of violence against them were part of a group of people they knew. Evidently students also know where and when attacks are likely to occur.

We found that 62 per cent of boys, compared to 41 per cent of girls, reported being attacked, and Asian pupils were twice as vulnerable as white and black African-Caribbeans. We concluded that in certain areas, schools - one of the few remaining community meeting points - are becoming a focus for neighbourhood conflict.

The borough's own research, based upon 1,017 questionnaires completed by school pupils, reinforced these findings noting that physical attack was common, with one in six pupils reporting being harassed on the way to and from school.

Physical attack was the most common form of harassment reported and 4 per cent said they had been beaten up or assaulted. But the majority (57 per cent) did not tell anyone of the attack. Young people tend to tell friends but rarely parents, teachers or other adults who might be able to help.

If we do recognise the school as a focal point within and around which violence takes place, how can we gain access to pupils' knowledge and experience of it? We used simple questionnaires, mapping exercises, walking tours of the neighbourhood and videos to identify where, when and in what circumstances young people were victimised.

We took our findings to a series of open forums with representatives from the local police, social services, the youth service, the racial violence unit and voluntary agencies. School governors created a victimisation sub-committee which initiated contact with police and local agencies to explore initiatives to promote pupil safety in the neighbourhood.

We also conducted a comparative study with a secondary school in a similar neighbourhood on the north-west of Paris which worked to build links with its local community, and encouraged pupils to talk about crime, violence and strategies for dealing with it.

The French pupils ran a community radio station from two classrooms producing chat shows and phone-ins dealing with these issues. The school set up a mentoring scheme that enabled older school-leavers to work in the school during lunch breaks and immediately after school with younger pupils. These developments were supported by both central and local government funds.

Over the past 10 years the neighbourhood surrounding the school moved from having one of the highest crime rates in France to being just below the national average. However, in the English school's area, social stability was undermined during the 80s and early 90s as older and more prosperous tenants left to be replaced by younger, poorer families linked neither through kinship or friendship. The destabilisation of social relationships was paralleled by the erosion of links with the local economy.

In this period the neighbourhood moved from being outward-looking, with a key role in the economy and social life of the East End, to an inward-looking one where growing numbers of unemployed young people became increasingly preoccupied with the minutiae of local conflicts and loyalties.

The experiences of this school in this neighbourhood are that helping pupils to share their fears and experiences and pool knowledge like their own self-help strategies, offers real opportunities to generate pupil safety. While sensible physical protection is essential, schools and agencies working with them should be resourced to build links with their communities and to listen to the pupils' experiences of living within them. This means resourcing lunch-time and after-school activities, thinking creatively about the role of the education social workers and initiatives which bring teachers, youth workers, youth justice workers and the police closer together. It is these initiatives that may work towards building a pupil-centred culture of safety.

John Pitts, a professor at the University of Luton, and Jenny Pearce, a Middlesex University lecturer, carried out research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council

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