Schools need to offer their most vulnerable pupils protection against criminal gangs which are now systematically recruiting primary-age children, according to government guidance published yesterday.
It states that street youth gangs in some areas operate formalised groups for younger children, known as "tinys". The guidance offers schools a list of warning signs.
Launching the document, Beverley Hughes, the children's minister, said schools were needed as "an important first line of response" against gangs that "cast a long shadow in some communities".
"Only a tiny minority of young people join gangs," she said. "But the impact this minority has is disproportionate and devastating - both for the young people concerned and everyone around them."
The guidance says schools should have strategies, agreed with police and other agencies, to help pupils targeted by gangs while they are in school and travelling to and from home. Schools should look at how to combat "gang-related risks" and protect gang members, their siblings, girls at risk of sexual exploitation, and those with serious mental health or drug misuse problems.
The document warns that it is not just teenagers at risk: "There is local evidence of some young children (including of primary age) engaged in gang activities," it says.
"In some areas the groups may be relatively formalised into age groups, for example `tinys' who can progress to `youngers' then `elders', usually through symbolic acts of crime."
It came in the week that an independent study from King's College London, gave a damning verdict on the Government's previous efforts to tackle youth crime.
Most targets had been missed, despite a substantial increase in spending, the report said,
Ms Hughes said schools could not tackle gangs alone, and called on local children's trusts to "up their game" in forging partnerships between police and children's agencies. She wanted them to be "tough on gangs and tough on the causes of gangs".
The guidance advises schools that a study this year in Lambeth, south London, found that: "The term `gang' was rarely used locally, with young people describing the groups they were involved with as `family', `breddrin', `crews', `coz' (cousins), `my boys' or simply `the people I grew up with'."
Solutions suggested for schools include the introduction of peer mentoring and restorative justice schemes, as well as diversionary activities for gang members, such as late night sports.
It says there should be confidential ways for pupils at risk to seek help through telephone, email or website-based systems.
Schools are warned against inadvertently glamorising or reinforcing gangs by conducting small group work with gang members without taking specialist advice.
The guidance is available at www.teachernet.gov.uk
WARNING SIGNS THAT SCHOOLS SHOULD WATCH
- Overly sexualised behaviour or assault.
- Tags (graffiti symbols) of postcodes, neighbourhood street names on school books, clothing or building surfaces, sometimes crossed out.
- Pupils wearing standard colours or particular items of jewellery or clothing such as bandanas.
- The carrying of weapons, including replicas or items that can be used as weapons.
- Pupils wearing clothing for protection against weapons.
- Suspicious use of mobile phones, internet, Bluetooth.
- Use of hand or other signals.
- Use of extremist language or materials.
- Sudden changes in pupil friendship groups or behaviour.
- Secretive behaviour.
- Pupils suddenly acquiring expensive designer clothes and top-of-the- range mobile phones and trainers.
- Threats of violence.
- Pupils using terms and nicknames to exclude others.
- Pupils or outsiders giving detailed instructions to other pupils.
- Extortion for money or goods, robbery, the trading of illegal substances, and gaming.
- Rise in absence, sometimes co-ordinated with other pupils.