23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Your weekly guide to a whole-school issue

As the temperature soars and school is out for the summer, street life hots up for urban teenagers.

Gangs are a growing feature of inner-city neighbourhoods, or "endz", in street slang. Young people may choose to join groups or simply become associated with them because of the estate they live on, or through family and friends. A new Home Office study estimates that 6 per cent of young people aged 10 to 19 are members of "delinquent youth groups"; that's almost half a million youngsters. Gang members are significantly more likely than non-members to be involved in crime, take drugs or carry a weapon. In the United States, with its long tradition of gang culture, one third of urban students report the presence of gangs in their schools.

The perceived glamour and rewards of the "gangsta" lifestyle act as a magnet for some disaffected pupils; not one of the gang members in one Manchester study had completed formal education. Others join for their own protection. "They look out for you. You don't want to be there all the time, but it's better than home," one 15-year-old told researchers on the Manchester study.

What is a "gang"?

Gangs, whether loose groups of friends or the feuding denizens of Verona, have always been with us. The term is currently applied to anything from a few hoodie-clad teenagers hanging around on a street corner, to Mafia-style criminal firms consisting mainly of middle-aged men. The Home Office study opts for the more specific term "delinquent youth groups", defined as groups that come together to engage in anti-social or criminal activity, which are durable over a period of time, are likely to have a structure or hierarchy and claim control over a territory. The average gang is made up of 15 people, and the prime age for membership is 14 to15.

But it is not just teenagers who are exposed to gangs. Primary school pupils can often reel off the names of local gangs and may see them in a positive light, says police officer Joe Warburton, of Manchester's multi-agency gang strategy team. "A gang member may ask a younger child to run an errand to a shop and then let them keep the change, for example.

They think it's great, but we try to make them understand that it's one of the ways they can get drawn in." There have been cases of gang members using children under 10 to transport drugs and guns.

Turf wars

The importance of "turf" is reflected in the fact that the vast majority of long-standing groups take their name from a street or area, usually with an added epithet such as "Boyz", "Mob" or "Posse". Author and youth worker Shaun Bailey, who grew up on a west London estate, says: "You come out of your flat for privacy. Your block becomes your extended bedroom... kids will fight with other kids just because they are on their road."

Territory is often marked with graffiti, with proxy battles played out through gang members' tags. Other features of gang membership may include a common dress code and slang and initiation rituals, although these are more common in the US than in Britain.

Gangs can spawn other gangs; the Peckham Young Boys inspired the Young Young Boys; some of Birmingham's notorious Burger Bar Boys (named after the fast-food joint where they originally congregated) split off to form the smaller Badder Bar Boys. Some gang names - Cutlass, Beg for Mercy, the Heartless Crew - are explicitly threatening.

While gangs occasionally form alliances, they are more often engaged in long-running, score-settling conflicts. Gangs are implicated in much of the gun crime in Britain, with the youngest associates at most risk. In nearly half of all gun murders in the UK, the victims are under-18. Many, such as the teenage friends Charlene Ellis and Letitia Shakespeare, shot dead in Birmingham at new year 2003, are random victims of gang warfare.

Gang psychology

Some of those working with young people are wary of the term "gang", warning that its negative connotations can stigmatise unfairly. "The word 'gang' is bandied about recklessly in the media," says Peter Jamieson, who works with the London borough of Southwark on issues related to gangs.

"It's human nature to associate in groups. If young people feel they're being labelled as gang members because they do so, or because of the fashions they choose to follow, then they are more likely to behave according to those expectations."

Nevertheless, group dynamics can prompt gang members to behave in ways they never would alone. Together, gang members become powerful; this often compensates for their lack of dominance in other areas of their lives. In places where gangs are active, some non-members live in fear of being beaten, bullied or robbed.

William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies got it exactly right, says Michele Elliott, director of the anti-bullying charity Kidscape. "Behaviour often sinks to the lowest common denominator as they egg each other on and try to out-do one another."

Gang-related violence

Reports of gang-related violence in and around schools are becoming more frequent. Student Kiyan Prince died outside his school in Edgware, north London, on May 18 after intervening in a fight which, according to press reports, involved members of the Thug Fam gang. And, on June 8, teenager Alex Mulumba, who had just finished his GCSEs, was stabbed to death in an altercation said to be between members of the Man Dem crew and the K-Boys, both of south London. "We are producing a generation of young people who are seeing their friends die in school, and our only response seems to be to say 'don't carry knives'," says Melvyn Davis of the Boys2men project in north London. "People take the law into their own hands when the system fails them."

The protective function of gangs was identified in a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation based on research carried out in deprived areas of Glasgow. Teenagers interviewed in the study said they moved around the streets in gangs as a way of pre-empting trouble and ensuring the safety of all members of the group.

But many gangs, like many individuals, move from being the victims of violence to becoming the perpetrators. Birmingham's Burger Bar Boys, with 100-plus members, began life in the 1970s as a self-help group protecting young Afro-Caribbean men from racist attacks by the National Front, but is now heavily implicated in crime in the city.

What's the attraction?

Adolescents are searching for identity; those whose home life has failed to nurture their self-esteem are more vulnerable to seeking identity from a gang. "There is a level of need and emotional deprivation that some young people experience that makes them more susceptible. They need to belong, to be accepted, be valued," says Melvyn Davis.

Gang members may provide powerful role models for young boys, says Shaun Bailey. "They seem to be tough. They seem to be having a good time... and when you are a boy, with that whole wanting-to-be-a-man thing, they appear to be men to you."

Gangs are hierarchical and provide the opportunity for "career advancement"

through risk-taking and criminal activity - very often the only kind of success young people believe is available to them. The current heavy emphasis in schools on academic success is a "push" factor, causing some to look elsewhere for validation. Race can also be an issue. Around two-thirds of the delinquent groups in the Home Office study were composed mainly of one ethnic group, although it's unclear to what extent this is merely a reflection of local demography. Some gangs are explicitly connected with ethnic or even religious groups, but this remains a sensitive issue.

One result is that gang culture is going unchallenged in some schools because teachers fear being accused of racism, according to Dr Ikhlaq Din of the University of Bradford. His study found gang members openly selling drugs in the city's schools.

Is it just boys?

Girls have traditionally been on the periphery of male gangs and many still conform to the "moll" stereotype, playing support roles such as harbouring drugs, weapons or stolen goods. However, this appears to be changing.

Almost half the groups in the Home Office study comprised a mixture of boys and girls, and one in 10 gang members were part of a group composed mostly, or entirely, of females. It is becoming increasingly common for females to be the perpetrators of violence.

A 16-year-old girl recently received an eight-year jail sentence for being part of a gang that kicked a man to death on London's South Bank in October 2004. "It used to be the case that the presence of girls would act as a braking mechanism on boys' violent behaviour, but now we often find that a girl in a mixed gang can be the most aggressive because she feels a need to prove herself by being 'harder' than the boys," says Michele Elliott. Girls attached to gangs or living in areas with gang activity are at higher risk of becoming victims of violence, a fact highlighted by the torture, rape and murder of 16-year-old Mary-Ann Leneghan by four young men in Reading last year.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are gangs whose initiation for new members involves committing a sexual assault. "Some of these young men will violate someone without a second thought and with no concept of the long-term effect that it will have on the victim," says Peter Jamieson.

One quarter of the girls under 16 seen at a sexual assault referral centre in London had been gang-raped.

Does the media matter?

Music genres such as gangsta rap convey the message that gang membership is the route to women and a "bling" lifestyle, a message epitomised by the title of US rapper 50 Cent's hugely successful CD Get Rich or Die Tryin'.

Films have long glamorised gang culture and criminality; Scarface, a 1983 film in which Al Pacino plays a ruthless gangster, is a perennial favourite. This year sees the release of Gangs of London, a Sony video game in which players assume the role of gang members and vie with rivals to take over the city.

"The kids here feel they have to have money. They talk about needing a hundred to four hundred pounds a week... and a lot of it is to do with respect... if you stand around with these boys, it's not long before someone pulls out a wedge of money, just to look cool," says Shaun Bailey.

Challenging the lifestyle

Ofsted said last year that one in five schools is concerned about gang culture among pupils. Once young people become involved in gangs, they can find it difficult to extricate themselves, and many areas with high levels of gang activity - notably London, Birmingham and Manchester - are now developing preventative programmes in schools.

The death of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor in 2000 provided the impetus for the Southwark Gang Project, which has been running for the past three years. As well as community schemes such as a constructive leisure programme, the project also has a role in the PSHE curriculum in selected schools across the borough. Whole year groups are targeted in day-long sessions that bring together partner agencies including the police and social services to educate young people about the possible consequences of gang membership.

The project also runs longer-term programmes in schools, pupil referral units and independent education centres, targeted at young people considered to be at risk of involvement. "A typical session might consider the theme of violence, using statistics of gangs involved in violent crime," says project worker Sameera Khan. "We will then ask the group to devise a role play to see how a situation can escalate, and look at strategies that could be used to avoid or defuse it." The project works with pupils who have been excluded from mainstream schools, such as those at the Education Support Centre in Southwark; exclusion can push teenagers into the hands of gangs. "A number of our students can be prone to dangerous behaviour outside, but they are less likely to present themselves in that manner here," says the support centre's deputy head, Anne Hamilton.

"The centre is in a house, so it provides an environment that is more of a home from home."

But while some respond to the rewards structure offered at the centre and move on to college courses that keep them off the streets, Ms Hamilton estimates that around three in 10 will find it too hard to leave the gang lifestyle behind. "Eventually we hear that they've been arrested again, or they're in jail," she says.

What can schools do?

Cedar Mount high school is in Gorton, Manchester, one of the city's hotspots for gang activity and gun crime. One successful addition to the curriculum here has been a multi-agency event overseen by prison officers, and involving a mock-up of a cell. It is popular with pupils, but hard-hitting and takes the glamour out of the criminal lifestyle. "Gang culture is all around us and it's bound to have an influence on the pupils," says the school's pastoral deputy head, Martin Dunkerley. "It's no good a middle-aged, middle-class bloke like myself just telling them gangs are bad. They need to be confronted with the consequences."

As a school in an area with high levels of criminal gang activity, Cedar Mount's multi-agency approach and emphasis on communication are key, Mr Dunkerley believes, to its success in keeping pupils on the straight and narrow. "The school acts as a platform to enable the police to build relationships with young people. Liaison officers come in for a meeting every week," he says.

"Community wardens, who patrol the area, will inform us if they see our pupils in suspicious groupings and we always let them know what action we have taken. That way the school becomes part of a local support network that helps us nip problems in the bud. If a pupil is on the fringes of a gang, word gets out and there's immediate intervention."

Did you know?

* Almost half a million UK teenagers are members of a gang

* While some young people are attracted to the perceived glamour of the gangsta lifestyle, many more join for the safety and sense of belonging

* Gangs are implicated in much of the gun crime in Britain, with the youngest members at most risk. In nearly half of all gun murders in the UK, the victims are under 18

* Average gang size is 15 people, with the prime age for membership 14 to 15

* According to a Home Office study, almost half comprise a mixture of boys and girls, and one in 10 gang members are part of a group composed mostly, or entirely, of females. It is becoming increasingly common for women to be the perpetrators of violence


* No Man's Land: how Britain's inner city young are being failed by Shaun Bailey, Centre for Policy Studies, pound;7.50.

* Gangs: a Journey into the Heart of the British Underworld by Tony Thompson, published by Hodder and Stoughton Paperbacks, pound;7.99, gives an overview of the nature and extent of gang activity in Britain today.

* Parenting and children's resilience in disadvantaged areas, the report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is at 0096.asp.

* The Home Office Report Delinquent youth groups and offending behaviour: Findings from the 2004 Offending, Crime and Justice Survey can be downloaded from

* Rationalisation of current research on guns, gangs and other weapons by the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science, University College London, can be found at

* has information and advice on anti-bullying strategies.

* Working with Gangs and Young People, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, Pounds 29.99. Manual from the UK charity Leap Confronting Conflict, which provides practical resources that help young people to explore the costs, gains and consequences of gang membership. Based on a five-year action research project, the manual has been written by two of Leap's key workers. For more information, visit or call Leap on 0207 272 5630.

*, a Home Office-backed site, includes lesson plans on guns and gangs.

Main text: Caroline Roberts Photographs: Times Newspapers; Phill KnottPYMCA

Additional research: Sarah Jenkins

Next week: Pupil tracking

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