Someone else's problem

21st May 2010 at 01:00
Gang culture is an undeniable fact of life in our inner cities and beyond, but why are schools so reluctant to confront the issue?

Ian Joseph is fresh from running a workshop with a group of Year 9 boys on how to stop conflict turning violent. He was called into school by the headteacher after a pupil was stabbed in the neck.

The boy ended up in intensive care. "He is still bandaged up from the attack and he is only 13," says Mr Joseph. "The doctor said he was very lucky to be alive."

The boy is thought to have been the victim of a gang attack. While gang violence is far from the experience of many schools, for some the problem is only too apparent.

Sofyen Belamouadden was stabbed to death in front of commuters at Victoria underground station during the rush hour in March. The 15-year-old's alleged killers were wearing school uniform at the time.

The attack is thought to have been the result of rivalries between gangs at different schools in west London. Thirteen teenagers have been charged with his murder, and a further eight with conspiracy to cause violent disorder and grievous bodily harm.

That such an incident happened not out of the way or late at night in a back street, but in a public place with many witnesses, highlights the extent to which gangs have become entrenched in the lives of some young people. The fact that the attackers were wearing school uniform at the time suggests it is an issue schools cannot ignore.

But while schools are seen as well placed to help prevent young people falling under the influence of gangs, agencies involved in gang-prevention work report that many are reluctant to admit that it is an issue for them for fear of causing damage to their reputation. However, the involvement of school-age pupils in such a high-profile killing suggests that this is no longer a tenable long-term option.

"You cannot disconnect what happens in gangs with what happens in the playground," says Mr Joseph, a director of Eastside Young Leaders' Academy, (EYLA), an after-school club based in east London that works with young black boys at risk of becoming involved in crime. Mr Joseph believes that schools need to face up to their responsibilities.

"What happens just outside the school gates, what is being allowed in the classroom and what happens in the playground is a hot bed, not just for bullying, but for the sort of behaviour that relates to crime," he says.

Nick Pearton, 16, was stabbed to death earlier this month in London. His death brings the number of teenagers thought to have died as a result of gang-related violence in London this year to six. Incidents in school may be rare, but Mr Joseph says this does not excuse an unwillingness to confront the issue.

"The response from schools is variable," he says. In the case of the pupil who was stabbed in the neck, the headteacher is keen to work with outside agencies, but this is not always the case. "Some schools are excellent at recognising boys who are having particular difficulties," says Mr Joseph, an expert on teenage gangs. "But some schools really do put their heads in the sand and try to protect their reputation."

For teachers already loaded with responsibilities extending beyond the school gate, combating gangs may seem just another burden, not to mention an area often beyond their level of expertise. Mr Joseph acknowledges that it can be unreasonable to expect teachers to possess the skills needed to work with children attracted by gangs, which is why working with other agencies is so important.

"If schools formed better partnerships with people, some of the problems inside school would improve," he says.

The silence around gangs may conceal the reality that they are more widespread than is often perceived. An Ofsted study in 2005 found that gang culture was visible in one in five secondary schools, although the sample size was too small to draw firm conclusions.

An earlier study found that where gangs were an issue in schools, the number of pupils affected was larger than might be supposed. While about 20 pupils may be actively involved in gangs, another 30 to 40 may be less directly involved and about 100 children can either be on the fringes of gangs or at risk of later involvement.

Police echo the complaint that schools are reluctant to address the issue. Sergeant Sandy Pepper, a member of the Metropolitan Police's Safer Schools Partnership (SSP), says it can be difficult to get schools to face up to gang-related issues. She says: "Schools are inward looking - they want to protect children and their reputation - and this makes them reluctant to let other professionals in."

The boy stabbed in the neck, a pupil at a London school, had been identified as being at risk of becoming involved in gangs even before the attack. His headteacher referred him to EYLA after becoming concerned about the behaviour of a group of boys at the school.

Mr Joseph says that there is little doubt the near-fatal attack was gang related. "It was about young people's codes and friendship groups," he says.

EYLA works with children as young as seven, with the emphasis on preventative work, helping young people from being drawn into a gang lifestyle. Mr Joseph says the key is to stop confrontation, or what he calls "oppositional defiance behaviour", from escalating into outright violence. The aim is to help them understand why they react in a certain way, and teach them alternative, non-violent strategies.

Much of the concern about gang violence revolves around knife crime. The most recent British Crime Survey (BCS) found that 3 per cent of young people reported carrying a knife. This group is also the most likely to fall victim to violent crime. The BCS found that 13 per cent of men aged 16 to 24 had been the victims of violence in the previous year.

While the perception is that most violent attacks take place outside school, the survey found that the most common location where ten to 15- year-olds will become victims of violence is in school.

The teaching union NASUWT published a report last year on gang culture, including an examination of why young people get involved in gangs.

The study, carried out by crime and safety researchers the Perpetuity Group, found that an absence of positive role models, poor parenting skills and a lack of moral guidelines were key factors in aiding recruitment to gangs.

Gangs are more prevalent in areas of social and economic deprivation and when young people feel they do not have much to aspire to, they see gangs as a viable career route with financial rewards, the authors concluded.

Schools are seen as being in a good position to help prevent violent behaviour among young people. In the Government action plan Saving Lives, Reducing Harm, Protecting the Public, produced in 2008, schools were given a role in the fight against gang-related crime.

Government guidance issued in March featured a toolkit for teachers with advice on dealing with gangs. Included were tips on how to recognise the signs that a pupil may be involved with gangs, ranging from sudden changes in behaviour and the use of extremist language, to wearing certain colours or types of clothing, such as bandanas.

"Schools should be active in supporting the well-being of children at risk of gang activity," according to the Government report, Safeguarding Children And Young People Who May Be Affected by Gang Activity. "Schools can be well placed to pick up signs of gang activity and identify those at risk of harm from gangs," the report says.

The report, produced by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Home Office, urges schools to work closely with other agencies to protect children at risk.

While many of the high-profile incidents have been in London, the problem is not confined to the capital. Programmes to tackle gangs have been running in Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester since 2007.

The Manchester Multi-Agency Gang Strategy, for example, includes preventative work in schools and colleges, looking at personal safety and gang involvement.

But it is not always straightforward to identify which pupils are involved with gangs. At Josie Langham's* school in east London, while many pupils have first-hand knowledge of gangs and talk about them openly, when it comes to specifics there is a distinct lack of co-operation.

In one recent incident, a gang of older boys arrived at school armed with sticks, looking for a group of Bangladeshi boys. The gang left after seeing a police officer who was stationed at the school.

The incident left pupils and staff shaken but fear of retribution - or a code of silence - meant neither teachers nor police could get any information about the gang from its potential victims. This silence is in stark contrast to the pupils' normal eagerness to talk about gangs.

"It was very scary," says Ms Langham, deputy head of year. "All our kids know people in gangs and they all want to be part of a gang. They are constantly talking about being gangsters and who is their back up. Everyone wants to be the `Big G', but when anything happens it is all really hush hush, so of course the kids aren't going to tell the police or teachers."

She believes that younger pupils often get involved in gangs out of fear. "To feel protected, they get their older brother involved, and the older brother is in a gang," she says. Gang members then act as back up if the pupil is involved in a fight, she adds.

Ms Langham's experience supports findings in the NASUWT research - that teenagers usually stick to the rules of school while they are there; extremes of behaviour, including violence, are generally reserved to the out-of-school environment. It can also be difficult to disentangle "normal" playground fights from gang-related violence.

"It is hard to tell if it comes into school," says Ms Langham. "If there is a fight in the playground, there will be a group surrounding them, but you just don't know if they are part of different gangs."

Gangs often divide along postcode or ethnic lines. In one inner-city school cited in the NASUWT study, teachers were aware that there were two groups of rival pupils, one predominantly Pakistani, the other Bangladeshi.

While the pupils all hung around together inside school, they would quickly fall into their ethnic groups if a fight broke out after school.

Friction between the Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils spread to other pupils, and despite the full-time presence of a police officer at the school, even some staff felt intimidated, the report says.

While teachers in that school realised the extent of the problem, there is evidence to suggest that schools downplay the impact that gangs have. The study found that some schools were wary of acknowledging their problems with gangs because of concerns about their reputation.

"I think (the problems) come down to negotiation and understanding of what a Safer Schools Partnership is," says Shaun de Souza Brady, chief inspector with the Metropolitan Police youth justice team.

"A lot of people think it is plonking an officer in a school - but it is a partnership between the police, the school and other agencies to improve the life chances for young people within that environment."

For the police, a presence in a school gives them the chance to work with young people on a daily basis. "It is not just a gang-related or gang- targeted initiative," says chief inspector de Souza Brady. "It is about reassurance and engagement with a purpose - to prevent crime."

Patrick Roach, NASUWT assistant general secretary, agrees it is vital that schools work with other agencies, including the police, to help improve young people's lives. But just because much gang-related behaviour takes place away from school, does not mean schools can ignore it.

Ms Langham acknowledges that while gang violence rarely surfaces in school, gang values can have an insidious influence on how the pupils behave. There is also a grim inevitability about the fate of some of her pupils.

"It affects what our kids aspire to and the way that they live," she says. "You know that when the kids get to 18, or even younger, they will go down that route."

Gang culture can have a profound effect on pupils' attitudes to education, far beyond seeing drug dealing, for example, as a quick route to earning money.

Gangs can represent a way out of economic and social circumstances that makes education and qualifications irrelevant. Gang membership can also be seen as a route to respect within the local community, as well as a form of self-defence, often misplaced as the death toll demonstrates.

Working to counter gang culture involves more than just identifying who might be at risk, but even this is fraught with pitfalls. Mr Joseph believes that existing government guidance for teachers on spotting people who may be in gangs is inadequate.

"The reasons why young people get into gangs is complex and multi-layered and you need to have a model that fits with that," he says.

"If you offer me a list (of characteristics) all that happens is that you focus on the two or three boys who fit that list. You don't see the 24 other boys who don't and may also be at risk. There is a process and unless you understand the process, you cannot take early invention."

There is also a risk that teachers will identify pupils incorrectly. "If they get labelled in the wrong way, it can have a long-term detrimental effect and entrench behaviour even further," says Mr Joseph. "That is why they need specialist input (from outside organisations) and they need to be open to that input."

Teachers also have to be aware that gangs can make up just a part of a young person's identity. Ms Langham says that while some young people find the prospective lifestyle appealing, it does not necessarily mean they are members of a gang.

"They wear trousers below their bums like gangsters, they love the swish cars and everything that it represents," she says. "You spend half your life saying: `You are not a gangster, you are Nabin*'. I feel like I constantly have to tell them that their identity is not a gangster. It is all that the boys aspire to."

But is it possible to turn people away from gangs? Mr Joseph cites one gang member who was heavily involved in drug dealing and has now landed a junior office job.

He adds that it is often clear what the trigger points are and what sort of behaviour might lead to involvement in gangs - the key now is turning that knowledge into action.

"I have no doubt that without the kind of intervention that we have provided or the kind of influence we have had on their internal compass, many of the boys would have chosen to engage with group violence or would have easily tried to justify using violence," he says.

"We have been able to instil a new moral framework, and in our book that is a success. Enough research has been done. We now need to turn those messages into something that works."

*Names have been changed

Presumed gang-related deaths in London 2010

January 13

  • Isschan Nicholls, 18, stabbed in a brawl in Bow, east London, in what is thought to have been a fight between rival "postcode" gangs.
    • February 19

      • Olukorede Fajinmi, 17, stabbed in a suspected gang fight outside a cinema in Beckton, east London.
        • March 25

          • Sofyen Belamouadden, 15, stabbed in a gang fight at Victoria Tube station.
            • March 27

              • Godwin Lawson, 17, stabbed in a park in Hackney, east London, after being caught up in a turf war between rival gangs.
                • April 14

                  • Agnes Sina-Inakoju, 16, shot in the neck at a takeaway shop in Hoxton, east London. She is believed to have been the innocent victim of a gang war.
                    • May 5

                      • Nick Pearton, 16, stabbed in a park after being chased by a gang of youths in Sydenham, south-east London. It is believed to have been a revenge attack after an earlier gang fight.
                        • Signs of gang involvement

                          • Sudden loss of interest in school; decline in attendance or academic achievement.
                          • Using new or unknown slang words.
                          • Unexplained money or possessions.
                          • Sudden change in appearance; dressing in a particular style or "uniform" similar to that of other young people they hang around with, including a particular colour.
                          • Dropping out of positive activities.
                          • A new nickname.
                          • Unexplained physical injuries.
                          • Graffiti-style tags on possessions, school books or walls.
                          • Constantly talking about another young person who seems to have a lot of influence on them.
                          • Breaking off with old friends and hanging around one group of people.
                          • Adopting certain codes of behaviour, such as ways of talking and hand signs.
                          • Expressing aggressive or intimidating views towards other groups of young people, who may have been friends in the past.
                          • Scared to enter certain areas.
                          • Concern at the presence of unknown youths in their neighbourhoods.
                            • Source: Safeguarding Children and Young People Who May be Affected by Gang Activity (Department for Children, Schools and Families; Home Office, March 2010).

                              DCSF guidance for schools: http:tinyurl.com6nktg6.


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