How can we tackle the gun culture?
SCHOOLS IN Liverpool are hoping the start of the new term will be as normal as possible following the shooting of 11-year-old Rhys Jones.
Rhys was shot outside a pub in Croxteth Park as the holidays drew to a close. The incident led to speculation that the killing was linked to gangland tensions between neighbouring estates. Only hours before, Rhys had been choosing a new school uniform so he could start his first term at Fazakerley High, where his brother Owen is in Year 13.
Both Fazakerley and Broad Square Primary, which Rhys had just left, will hold special assemblies. Pupils will be told that extra support is available if they are upset or scared.
The council has already made extra youth workers available at youth and community centres in the Croxteth, Norris Green, Clubmoor and Fazakerley areas to provide counselling. Mark Coleman, the chairman of governors at Broad Square Primary, is also the local vicar, and he will lead a memorial service at the start of term.
Stuart Smith, director for children's services at Liverpool council said: "The key is to keep things as normal as possible and make the transition into the new term."
Elaine Spencer, head of Broad Square, has already paid tribute to Rhys in a statement issued through the council, but other schools in the area declined to comment until a meeting to discuss the issue at the start of term.
Rhys's death has prompted national outrage about gun culture, street crime and gangland tensions on city housing estates. He was one of the youngest children to be killed in violent incidents this year, which have resulted in 17 teenage deaths in London alone.
The roll-call of those under 16 to be killed in apparently gang-related attacks in the past 18 months include Jessie James, Martin Dinnegan, Abukah Mahamood, Ben Hitchcock, Adam Regis, Kodjo Yenga, Paul Erhahon, and Michael Dosunmu.
Some commentators have blamed schools for not doing enough to prevent children getting involved with gangs and guns. But John Rimmer, an NASUWT national executive member for Liverpool and the North West, said it was absurd to blame schools.
"Children should be spending the majority of their time with their parents and the problems lie with dysfunctional families."
Phil Hearne, the former head of the London Academy in Edgware, London, where 15-year-old Kiyan Prince was stabbed to death outside the school gates last year, said it was up to teachers to keep their ears to the ground. He said: "Schools do need to be aware of the nature of gangs and how to spot who might be vulnerable."
Mr Hearne said it was important not to exaggerate the issue and to look at facts not theories.
There are plenty of courses and initiatives aimed at tackling the problem. The Young Leaders for Safer Cities programme, run by the Metropolitan Black Police Association, has just been upgraded to a BTec, worth one GCSE, accredited by Edexcel.
It is aimed at young people living in poor communities, and hopes to tackle gang culture by helping them become community leaders.
Similar schemes are running in a number of police forces around the country, with West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Warwickshire among those running the Natural Born Leaders programme.
Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the children's commissioner, has announced that he will be focusing on reducing violence among and against young people over the next year.
LOCATIONS THAT SPELL TROUBLE
Conflict map is a key part of Leap's work in trying to prevent gang violence. Young people are asked to draw a map of their area and to mark where conflicts occur, when they occur and who is involved.
"We ask them to relate conflicts to particular locations such as schools, youth clubs and shops," said Andy Jukes, Leap's gangs worker. "We ask where they feel safe and it is remarkable how few places they can point to."
For Shahriar Hussain (above left), now 16, one of the Bengali group taken on a Leap residential, it was an eye-opener. "It made me think of the dangerous points," he said. "It made it clearer what it was like."
A LEAP INTO RESPONSIBILITY
Ariful Islam, who went on the Leap programme with his friends Shahriar Hussain and Najmul Hoque, had been given several warnings and was on the verge of exclusion from school.
"Somebody would look at you in a certain way and you would start swearing and it would turn into a fight," he said. "There used to be fights over nothing, no reason. Nobody used to talk to each other."
Ariful (centre), now 16, was one of a dozen pupils, then in Year 10 at Bethnal Green Technology College in east London, who went on a residential weekend run by Leap, prompted by persistent fighting between rival gangs at the school.
"They told us how to resolve conflicts and handle situations. They told us to think before we did anything," he said.
Najmul (right), also 16, says the weekend was the first time many members of the group had spoken to each other about how they felt.
He had not seen himself as a gang member. As far as he was concerned, he was just hanging around with his friends, but working with Leap helped him realise why others viewed the group as a gang.
Now Ariful and Najmul say they would rather walk away from a fight than get involved. And along with the tools to avoid conflict has come a recognition of their own share of responsibility.
"We used to start the fights and that is what made it dangerous," says Ariful. "Now we don't and it is safer."
Photograph: Joel Chant