Trigger happy - Anti-violence campaign

27th February 2009 at 00:00
With a rise in violent youth crime, isn't it time to point to alternatives rather than placing blame?

Are you a lion or a turtle? At first, Luke generally ended up in the lion corner, but today he finds himself more often holding the centre ground as an owl. He thinks it's the last few weeks that have made the difference. "It's taught me quite a lot," he says. "It's taught me that violence isn't the answer and it only leads to more violence. It's taught me how to be a better person."

For the past six weeks, Luke has been one of a group of Year 9 pupils taking part in a project promoting alternatives to violence. Today, they are repeating an exercise they did at the start of the scheme, the Conflict Zoo, where they identify with different animals based on their approach to confrontation: lions never back down; turtles hide in their shell; camels carry a load on their back; foxes look for compromise and owls are thoughtful and willing to co-operate.

Each animal is allotted a corner, with owls in the middle, and over the weeks there has been a distinct shift in where the children head as each scenario - which details conflict with parents, teachers, peers and strangers - is read out. Six weeks ago, many of the pupils frequently saw themselves as lions; today there's a definite bias towards owls.

"There's been a real change," says Dave Byerley, assistant head at City of Portsmouth Boys' School. "It has raised their self-esteem and the way they think about themselves and you can see the difference in how they behave around school."

It is one of several schools in the city taking part in the pilot project, which is run by the Non-Violence Foundation. Its Knot Violence campaign - symbolised by a gun with a knot in its barrel, based on a memorial to John Lennon outside the UN building in New York - aims to harness children's creativity to change attitudes over violence and gun and knife crime.

"The idea is to challenge young people to think creatively about the things that are going on in their lives," says Clem Leech, the campaign director.

One of the programme's exercises is to decorate a plaster cast, scale model of the gun. At City of Portsmouth Boys', pupils chose newspaper headlines - progressing from violent imagery, such as murder and terror at the butt of the gun, to words such as justice and peace towards the knotted barrel. "It shows everybody you don't really need to be violent," says Tom, 13.

In today's final session, the boys are asked to come up with their own non-violence logo. Doves feature widely. "I don't see the point of violence. It's not going to solve the problem," says Fostin, 13.

The six-week programme is a variation of a scheme that began in Sweden and has been used in the US, South Africa, Brazil and Germany. Although it originally ran for an entire school year, the cost and commitment involved prompted the foundation to come up with a distilled version. Mr Leech acknowledges that changing attitudes in six weeks is a tall order, but says he is realistic about what can be achieved.

"It is planting a seed and making young people think about the process. We want to show that there is an alternative to violence, and this is all about engaging them in that," he says.

But there is only so much that can be done in such a short time. Damion, 13, now finds himself more often in the centre of the room as an owl, but when it comes to conflict with strangers, he is back in the lion corner. "If they said something to you and you said something back, they might come at you and hit you and you would hit them back," he explains.

The foundation enlisted the support of Portsmouth Football Club to help deliver the pilot scheme in the city. The pupils went to the club's ground, and met David James, the Portsmouth and England goalkeeper. Staff at the club's study centre run the classroom sessions.

Mr Leech admits that involving the club gave them a head start in getting the boys interested, and made it easier to get into schools in the first place. The club also picked up the cost of running the programme in schools.

The high level of interaction meant only a small group of pupils could take part - seven are in today's session. Mr Byerley says the boys were chosen to create a diverse group, encouraging them to mix outside their friendship groups. Although the group is small, he is confident the effects will be felt more widely. "It has made a huge difference to these boys and, if other children feed off the way they have changed, it is going to be successful," he says.

The programme's symbol might be a knotted gun, but all the parties involved are aware of the danger of exaggerating the risk. Despite newspaper headlines, gun and knife crimes are still relatively rare.

"We don't have a huge violence issue in Portsmouth," says Mr Byerley. "It isn't rife with knife and gun crime, but we're an inner-city school and we take boys from across the area, so we have a diverse population.

"It's not scaremongering, it is raising awareness of issues around conflict. These boys are quite streetwise: they know what is going on out there."

Mr Leech says the programme is adjusted to take into account the children's own experiences. "Scaring people doesn't work, it just desensitises them," he adds.

Adam Lea, who is taking today's session, says the scheme's emphasis is on preventing conflict, rather than resolving it. "Violence is all around us. What we're trying to get the kids to understand is that it is not just the result of external factors, but is about what they do themselves."

Mr Lea, based at the club's study centre, says many of the exercises are centred around getting the children to think about how other people might be feeling.

A key component of the programme is talking about situations where the pupils have been involved in conflict, thinking about the other person's point of view and what they could have done to avoid it escalating. After a hesitant start, when the boys are perhaps sizing each other up, Mr Lea says their gradual willingness to open up to each other has given them an insight into how others must feel. "They realise that other people are just like them," he says.

Damion admits he used to be "really annoying", winding people up and regularly getting into fights, but he now claims to have calmed down. He puts at least some of this is down to taking part in Knot Violence. "It is making me think before I act."

Luke says he was regularly in trouble, in detention most nights for fighting, not doing his work and verbal abuse. Not any more. "I've turned into a nice owl," he says. For Sam, also 13, it has changed his view of playground violence. "If I saw a fight going on I would say, `Fight, fight, fight'. But now I would think about what the person getting beaten up feels like and if I could try to help them," he says.

Once the pilot scheme has been evaluated, including comparing questionnaires completed by the boys at the beginning and end, Knot Violence aims to move into other cities across the country. One of its ambitions is to have a knotted gun statue in prominent locations to highlight the anti- violence message.

Mr Byerley is planning a Year 9 assembly to formally unveil the school's version of the statue. He says the changes already seen in the boys could have an effect far beyond the six-week programme.

"It is about them making positive choices, and having the confidence to make those choices." And even if the effect is only felt by the boys who took part, he says it will still have been worth it.

Knot Violence aims to launch across the country from March. Visit



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