`Our children are becoming immune to violence'
Nine-year-old pupils at risk of getting trapped in a life of violence and knife crime are being targeted in a radical new project to tackle gang culture in Glasgow schools.
The scheme will work with dozens of P5 pupils in four Glasgow primaries. Those who have been identified as being "on the cusp of gangs" will be given support and advice about how to stay out of trouble. The scheme has been adapted from the US-based Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) project, which encourages young people to be leaders in their communities.
The project in Scotland is being led by the government's Violence Reduction Unit. The organisers hope it will eventually be rolled out to all 138 of the city's primaries and reach thousands of children from P5 to S1.
"We felt that violence was washing over our children," said Nancy Clunie, headteacher of Dalmarnock Primary, one of the schools taking part in the project (see box, above).
"They were becoming immune to violence. Perhaps not taking part, but if they'd seen something it would not have the shock value you'd expect - and by secondary school, they might be taking part."
The project, A Community in Motion, was inspired by a conversation between Louise Hamilton, headteacher of St Anne's Primary, and Geraldine Parkinson, leader of St Thomas' Primary. Both expressed concern that initiatives to counter gang culture targeted children only from P7 upwards, although many of them became entangled with gangs from the age of 9.
Ms Hamilton said she had noticed pupils of this age getting involved in low-level crime and finding themselves "on the cusp of gangs". Ms Parkinson added: "We see a change around P5. [Pupils] become more socially aware and image-conscious, and relationships become a bit more tense and fraught."
The two schools, along with St Michael's and Dalmarnock primaries, will work closely with the Violence Reduction Unit, which has won acclaim for its work in helping to dramatically reduce violent crime in Scotland by treating it "like a disease rather than a crime", and working to "inoculate" against it before it takes place.
The unit's director Karyn McCluskey said this was the first time that children so young had been targeted in the UK. She was due to highlight the innovative approach at a Home Office event this week, expected to be attended by home secretary Theresa May and police chiefs.
The programme is based on the MVP programme's core concept that even bystanders are complicit in violence. Children will be taught how to handle real-life scenarios, playing the role of victim, perpetrator and bystander in turn.
Some 60 per cent of the pupils at the participating schools are entitled to free school meals. Participants will be asked three times a day to mark on a board how happy they are feeling on a scale from one to 10, to help researchers from the University of Glasgow monitor the programme's effectiveness.
Other partners include the charity Possibilities for Each and Every Kid (PEEK), which works to increase children's confidence through arts, leisure and play.
Ms McCluskey added that organisers were also keen to win the support of parents, many of whom may have had negative experiences in school themselves. "We need to give the parents aspirations as well," she said.
An event to launch the project last week was attended by more than 80 parents, much to the surprise of the schools.
"It's going to take time, but the start has been absolutely amazing," Ms Hamilton said. "It's no good doing wee bits of work here and there. We need to pull together as a community to make this work."
`This is about offering alternatives'
Dalmarnock Primary, one of the schools taking part in the A Community in Motion project, first received national attention when it featured in the BBC documentary series on Glasgow, Commonwealth City, broadcast last year.
It highlighted the contrast between the construction of gleaming venues for the Commonwealth Games and the tough lives, and sometimes tragically early deaths, of the area's residents. Many were former Dalmarnock Primary pupils, and headteacher Nancy Clunie hopes that the new programme will prevent more children suffering similar problems with poverty, drugs and violence.
She believes it is vital that teachers learn to understand how being accepted by a gang can seem appealing to children. "As soon as you warn them not to do something, they're going to do that," she says. "This is about offering alternatives."