The Issue: Youth violence - Time for schools to play older brother

13th June 2008 at 01:00
Heads have to tackle the ills of modern society by offering teenagers the sense of family and belonging they lack at home. Fiona Leney reports

Heads have to tackle the ills of modern society by offering teenagers the sense of family and belonging they lack at home. Fiona Leney reports

A spate of violent teenage deaths, culminating in the murder of a 15- year-old girl in south London as she was returning home from school, has focused attention once again on the dangers facing school aged children. Much of the recent coverage in the media has been on the introduction of spot checks to catch knife-carrying youths, while Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has backed airport-style metal detectors being used in inner-city schools to stop weapons being taken into class.

But little attention has been paid to the growing concern among teachers that, while there have always been violent children, many now seem so emotionally detached from society that they show no remorse or emotional response after hurting others.

"They are completely blank," says one teacher who deals frequently with violence in school. "They can't put themselves in someone else's shoes, or feel their pain."

As growing numbers of children seem to be abandoning the basic human values that might check violent impulses or make rehabilitation possible, commentators are left asking, "Is it time for a moral panic?" But the more pressing question for teachers is: "What more can schools do to deal with pupils who have `checked out' of society?"

The bad news is that youth violence is unlikely to decline. The TES spoke to heads with first-hand experience, a clinical psychologist and children's charities. They all point to the breakdown of the traditional family unit, upheaval in society, and increasing disparity in the distribution of wealth as the root causes.

The good news is that schools can do much to give children a second chance. Oliver James, a clinical psychologist and author of Britain on the Couch, believes that family background holds the key. "Research shows that the three elements most likely to lead to violence . are low income, youth and being male," he says. "But the difference between poor young men who are violent, and those who are not, is parenting."

Children as young as five, who suffer violence and inconsistent punishment from parents who fight, can be predicted to become violent adults if no one intervenes.

And while the Government points to a fall of 600,000 in the number of children living in poverty, those living very near the official poverty line has increased.

Struggling to make ends meet is one of the causes of family breakdown, says Mr James. Add to that the pressure on single parents to put small children into inadequate child care so they can work, and you have a lethal mix of poverty and neglect.

"We know that if you haven't had the experience, at a young age, of being centrally important to your mother or father - of having someone consider your feelings and needs - you won't know how to behave like that towards others," he says.

It's a message backed up by Jo Shuter, head of Quintin Kynaston School in London, who became secondary headteacher of the year last year in recognition of her work to counter violence and gang culture.

Her school works hard to engender a sense of family among its pupils, many of whom have no fathers or positive male role models at home. She believes that schools have a pivotal role to play in keeping children on the rails.

"The whole nature of schooling, particularly in inner cities, has changed," says Ms Shuter. "Teachers have to take on a much broader role, to become role models and to offer children the sense of family they no longer get at home. If we don't, it simply won't get done - this is the one place where our kids are a captive audience. Only we can reach them easily. It is morally indefensible not to accept this role."

It is the effective implementation of the Every Child Matters cam paign, with schools at the hub of networks of agencies. Ms Shuter's school has its own social worker, and she believes that this can be effective in identifying and supporting at-risk families.

But such initiatives don't come cheap. It costs Quintin Kynaston pound;250,000 a year to maintain its team of part-time, non-teaching staff, including former sixth-formers who work as "youth advisors".

"We are aiming to create a role of older brother for them. We need people who are morally sound - not geniuses, not lawyers or City high-flyers, but someone they can trust and relate to," says Ms Shuter.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company, a charity that provides a safe space for vulnerable youngsters, says schools should be doing more to hold social services responsible for needy children.

"Schools are inheriting the problems of the street and the failures of social care structures," she says.

It is a point taken up by Kenny Frederick, head of George Green's School on the Isle of Dogs in east London. "This is not just about one issue - knives, or drugs, or drink - it's about the things that are wrong with society all around children," she says. "We need to join up the dots: if kids are drinking, it's because parents are drinking, pubs are open all day and booze is cheap. We're blaming children when we should be looking at wider society."

Ms Frederick also sees a desperate failure of parenting at her school, describing meetings where there is no emotional attachment between parents and their children.

"These days, we have to help parents to parent," she says. "Our staff do home visits and we work with social services and voluntary groups to provide support."

Like Quintin Kynaston, George Green's runs workshops and mentoring schemes, and both schools welcome the Department for Children, Schools and Families' recognition of the need for action, with its social and emotional aspects of learning (Seal) programme.

"The curriculum has become so much about passing exams, it has squeezed social and emotional education off the timetable," says Ms Frederick. "I think the powers that be must recognise the importance of educating the whole child."

As Ms Shuter says, school assemblies can examine the issue of violence, but not solve it. "Dealing with kids at the sharp end needs much more to be done," she says.

So it is not simply that children are becoming bad or that schools are weak on discipline. The answer is to be found in the kind of society adults have created - and in what is happening to family life.

As Dr James points out, research has finally proved what educationists suspected all along: that violent television and video games do lead to aggressive behaviour. Add neglectful parenting, and it is easy to see the causes of teen violence.


- Set up a mentoring scheme that gives pupils role models - not necessarily conventionally successful people, but solid and supportive types. It helps if you can find mentors from different ethnic groups.

- You cannot act alone, so establish good links with social services, police and the community.

- Get pupils' families into school to see how you can help them.

- Give pupils the facts on gun and knife crime to counter the "cool" image, but try not to frighten them. Remember, most children are not violent. You may cause anxiety by over-emphasising the issue.

- Don't frisk for weapons too often. Pupils will feel constantly under suspicion and it will increase anxiety.

- In extreme cases, a joint socialacademic inclusion panel should consider what steps - such as anger management or contact with a mentor - have been taken, and weigh the child's continued presence at the school against the effect on other pupils.




In southern Spain, schools can join the Seville Against School Violence project, set up by an educational psychologist at the University of Seville. It seeks to prevent outbreaks of violence between children by creating a "family-like" school atmosphere and teaching them interpersonal skills.

Using questionnaires and consultation meetings, experts study a specific school situation and make a report. If the teachers decide to join the project, they are offered support in the classroom and a task force is set up to prevent violence. The project is funded by the European Union and Spanish government.

United States

The state of Georgia requires its schools to implement a "character education" programme for all children. The idea is to encourage "citizenship, honesty, fairness, respect for others, kindness, co- operation, self-respect, self-control, courtesy, compassion, tolerance, diligence, generosity, punctuality, cleanliness and respect for the environment".


The Gaspar network, conceived to help problem teenagers, is active in northern France. Its main aim is prevention, using volunteer student mentors, teachers and social services.


The Education for Compassion programme, funded by the Ministry of Education, aims to encourage civic values among children.

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