Let's not lose our heads over gang culture

18th May 2012 at 01:00

Gangs and schools do have some things in common. Both can force young people to participate. Both can insist on specific dress codes. Both were wrongly blamed for last summer's riots.

The negative impact that schools can have on young people's behaviour has been wildly exaggerated by the press and certain politicians. So, too, has the impact of gangs.

In many cases, what can look to an adult like a gang - and even be referred to by a pupil as a gang - is simply a small bunch of mates. Not a criminal enterprise and not exactly the Bloods and the Crips, or even the Sharks and the Jets.

So, if gangs are overhyped, why is TESpro running a special feature about them? Won't that add to the problem?

Actually, the aim of today's report is partly to try to dispel some of the exaggerations about youth gangs in the UK. But it is also to recognise that, for a certain minority of schools, they pose a genuine threat. Those schools are often the only safe havens in their pupils' lives, and they need every possible support.

One popular assembly option in tough areas is to bring in a reformed gang member to tell their gripping tale about how life on the streets turned nasty, and how they later found redemption.

But such interventions can backfire by normalising or even - unintentionally - glamorising such behaviour. Similarly, heavy-handed tactics such as introducing metal detectors and searches for knives and guns sends out a message to students that they are presumed to carry weapons and that such things must be part of their daily lives.

Former headteacher Graham Robb is right when he says that the first priority must be for schools to establish positive social norms. "You need to send a very strong message to all pupils that most children aren't in gangs, aren't carrying guns and aren't committing crime," he says.

That message does not just need to be heard by pupils. It is a message that many parents, journalists and politicians - and even a few teachers - need to be reminded of, too.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro

michael.shaw@tes.co.uk @mrmichaelshaw.

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