When I grow up I want to be a gangster

2nd March 2012 at 00:00
How do you teach children whose parents are embroiled in organised crime? Adi Bloom investigates how schools deal with the sometimes shocking repercussions of what happens when dad is the local Godfather

How do I do this?" the north London headteacher says. "How do I do this in a way where I don't end up being bundled into the back of a white van?" There is silence on the end of the phone. "Because they've threatened me with that once already."

The headteacher - whose not-unreasonable fear of white vans means that he has asked to remain anonymous - once taught the offspring of a member of one of north London's most notorious gangs. The boy's father had been involved in large-scale robberies as well as general drug trafficking. And he was known as the man behind at least one kneecapping of a rival gang member.

The problem of school-aged children joining gangs has been widely and repeatedly discussed. Anti-gang organisations and youth workers regularly try to persuade children that the potential costs of joining a gang outweigh the limited advantages. However, for those children who are born into gang families, and the teachers who must work with them, a different set of problems exists.

When the north-London headteacher joined the school, the gangster's son - who, in recognition of his heritage, will be given the pseudonym Reggie - was in Year 9. "The basic thing is that he was lawless," the headteacher says. "Everyone locally knew about his family. He would do things, and nobody would challenge him. Children and staff, including senior staff, were frightened of confronting him."

Reggie, therefore, had the run of the school. He would stroll through the corridors during lesson time, every so often putting his head around a classroom door. "If other kids were messing around, he'd say, 'All right, Miss?' to the teacher," his headteacher says. "Then he would say to the class, 'She's all right'. The kids would quieten down because they didn't want to be beaten up by him at lunchtime."

Jack's teachers saw similar unchecked behaviour at his south London school. Jack was becoming increasingly difficult to handle. He was violent and aggressive, smashing car windows and classroom doors. He regularly threatened staff, and on occasion hit them.

Jack was eight years old.

Seeking protection

The headteacher of Jack's primary school asked his mother to come in to discuss her son's levels of aggression. The minute the head broached the subject, however, the mother took offence and began shouting threats. "I'm going to get my gang members to come and run you over and smash you up," she said. The headteacher was fairly sure that she meant it.

"Gang members often carry knives, primarily for protection," says Stephen Adams-Langley, regional manager for the charity The Place2Be. The Place2Be provides counsellors to work in schools; one such counsellor was working in Jack's primary.

Jack's mother had joined a gang because she was looking for protection from her brutal older brothers. "The belief system is that, unless you join a gang and are incredibly aggressive, you won't survive," Adams-Langley says. "It's about safety. This boy was incredibly aggressive, but it was a form of defending himself. If he was aggressive, no one would hurt him. He hadn't made the connection that, if he was aggressive, people would want to hurt him, too."

Indeed, for many children of gang members, copying gang behaviour is a way of proving that they belong. Walking, talking and dressing like gang members earns them immediate approval. Ten-year-old Dan, for example, was the child of two gangster parents. "They both came to school literally covered in gold," says Adams-Langley. "And the boy had new trainers, new baseball caps, new clothes. His father gave him approval whenever he expressed interest in status symbols - gang colours and so on. If the boy neglected that, he would lose the approval of his father."

But willingness to be associated with gang culture is not merely about earning parental approval. There is also a broader gang-cultural expectation that the child of gang members will uphold family honour. "Where you've got young children with high-profile siblings or a mother or father involved in a gang, there's a reputation that these children will have to bear," says Jonathon Toy, head of community safety and enforcement for the south London borough of Southwark. "That child may not want to be involved in gang culture, but there's a street reputation that they need to maintain."

He has seen this first-hand. He worked with one 13-year-old boy whose older brother was heavily involved in gang violence. The 13-year-old, however, showed little interest in gang life. He was fairly bright and very sporty, and had recently won a number of sporting accolades. "He had a lot of very positive things going on in his life," Toy says. "He was liked by teachers at school - they had a real soft spot for him. They saw him as a really positive young guy. I genuinely don't believe he wanted to follow the road of his brother."

However, the boy gradually found that he could not safely go to the sports ground any more: his brother's gang rivals would try to start a fight with him whenever he turned up. He was under increased pressure to join in with the gang war: what he did or did not decide to do would reflect on the reputation of his brother.

"People think that, if they threaten the younger brother, it's a way of threatening the older sibling," says Toy. "When that pressure is on you, when reputation is placed on you, that force can be immense. Do you carry on taking the threats? Or do you find a way to retaliate and maintain your status and reputation?"

Another family whom Toy worked with faced the same pressure. The oldest son was stabbed and killed when he was in his late teens, after a gang-based fight. The loss of his older brother triggered something in one of the younger siblings, still only in his early teens. In a development that mirrors the plot of Mario Puzo's The Godfather, the younger boy, who had previously shown no interest in gangs, now became caught up in incident after incident.

"He absolutely felt that there was a reputation he had to maintain," says Toy. "Keeping up the reputation of the name, really. Threats and intimidation. Low-level violence. Common assault.

"There's huge pressure. Partly it's put on himself: that's what he believes he should be doing. But it's also what others put on him, and that has a huge psychological impact.

"Reputation means an awful lot when you're 13 or 14 years old. If you lose it, you lose credibility among the young people you spend time with. It's about keeping that status, that reputation. And it's about family as well."

Fear of family

In his north London secondary, much of Reggie's behaviour similarly stemmed from a sense of family honour. He carried with him into the playground the full force of his father's reputation: he felt it was his right to break rules. "He wasn't stupid enough to beat someone up or stab them," says his headteacher. "There was just lots of threatening behaviour. Getting lunch money off kids, extortion.

"It's all from the background. Your parents say one thing to you, but act another way to their enemies, or even to people they see in the shops. If you haven't got boundaries at home, you don't see boundaries. It's an inevitable consequence, isn't it?"

It was not merely the other pupils who were scared of what Reggie's father could do. "The staff were terrified of telling Reggie off," the headteacher says. "People just let him walk in and out of lessons and generally do as he pleased." Reggie was, admittedly, slightly more inclined to listen to his headteacher. "It was almost a criminal code: be nice to the chief inspector and the headmaster. But not so much to the dinner lady or the Year 7 boys."

On arrival at the school, the headteacher had introduced a clear system of sanctions. Within a matter of days, therefore, Reggie had been referred to the internal exclusion room on 12 different occasions. "I said, 'It's dead simple'," the headteacher says. "'I've got my mobile phone, and I've got your dad's number. Let's see what he thinks about the way you're behaving.'"

Reggie responded with an inevitable "Fuck off - you can do what you like." But he sat down nonetheless, and was quiet. "The one thing he feared was his dad," his head says. "The dad was, 'We've taught our kids right and wrong. I want him to behave.'"

Not all gang parents place such a strong emphasis on rules. Or, indeed, on schooling. Adams-Langley has worked with several south London primaries whose roll includes the children of drug dealers. "Often, the children aren't picked up from school," he says. "Because the mothers are dealing, they have a way to get their own supply subsidised or free."

Ecstasy tablets, for example, retail at about #163;3: significantly cheaper than an evening in the pub. "The headteachers are regularly left with several children after school. And when the mothers do pick them up, at half four or five o'clock, they're still coming down from the ecstasy."

Mornings, equally, are often spent sleeping off the effects of the night before. As a result, small children regularly turn up at school unfed, or without winter coats. Many are also responsible for dressing and feeding younger siblings. "The child becomes a substitute partner, a substitute friend," says Adams-Langley. "They know about drugs, they know about dealing. Children assume it's so normal that they disclose things in ways that startle their teachers: 'mummy goes to parties and takes tablets.'"

"There's a term the young people use," says Toy. "'On road' - when you've chosen a certain life. The moment you start doing that, you're on road. It's really difficult to turn off and get out of it: the moment you're involved, you get deeper and deeper in. There's a lot of pressure put on you."

"I used to work with one young man who was literally born into gangs," agrees Natalie Tomlinson. A youth consultant working in south London schools, Tomlinson has witnessed the level of pressure that having a gang-member parent or sibling can create for younger children. Many want to impress their older siblings, to be allowed to hang out with them and their friends. Others are co-opted into gang robberies or violence, because "if you're young, if you're caught, you won't get as much trouble as we will".

Blood is thicker than water

The boy she is referring to had a lot of relatives in gangs. From the early years of secondary school, this boy was a reluctant participant in gang activities: fights, robberies. "He was just born straight into that life," she says. "He had no choice. He knew these things were wrong, but there was a lot of pressure on him. For the family, blood is thicker than water. This is what they do."

Despite his headteacher's efforts at intercession, within weeks Reggie had exhausted every sanction the school had in its armoury. So his headteacher realised that he was going to have to exclude him. "My deputy head said, 'Careful'," the headteacher says. "But I kind of thought: brave it out. Is he really going to have the headteacher of his son's school beaten up?"

Reggie's mother turned up in a leopard-skin coat and high leather boots. "I love your handbag," one of Reggie's teachers remarked, in an effort at polite conversation. "Oh, it's Louis," Reggie's mother replied casually. "I'll sort you out with one, if you'd like."

Reggie's father, meanwhile, exuded calm and quiet control. "You're not excluding my son," he said simply. "Yes, I am," the head replied. "No, you're not," Reggie's father countered. "I'm taking him out of school."

And, with that, they left the office. As he walked out the door, however, Reggie's father turned and said: "Thank you very much - you've really helped us out. But look out, because there are always white vans driving around. You never know when you're going to be bundled into one." And he left the building, trailing son and leopard-printed wife behind him.

In Jack's south London primary, the headteacher responded to similar - if lower-level - threats from his mother by barring her from school premises. This meant that, when the school's Place2Be counsellor was looking for permission to work with Jack, all negotiations had to be conducted with his mother over the telephone. "The key issue was getting the mother's confidence," says Adams-Langley. "Gaining her trust over time. We had to be incredibly sensitive, and really slow it down."

Jack was referred to a very gentle, male counsellor. Together, they began to consider the impact of the boy's aggression and violence. "If he attacked other people, he would be unsafe as well," Adams-Langley says. "It was about understanding the consequences of aggression."

But The Place2Be also continued speaking to Jack's mother. "She assumed that, unless you join a gang and are incredibly aggressive, you won't survive," says Adams-Langley. "It's about safety. We had to do some very delicate work with her belief system."

In fact, many parents and older siblings who belong to gangs actively discourage younger family members from taking that same route. Toy has worked with a number of teenagers whose gangster relatives are desperate to divert others from taking first steps "on road".

One boy, Rick, was eager to follow in the footsteps of his brother, four years older and already in a gang. "He was trying to maintain the status his older brother had," says Toy. "He wanted to have that level of status on the street as well."

The older brother sat down with Rick and asked him who he was trying to be: "Are you trying to be you, or me? You're not me. You're you. You have to be true to yourself. I'm not asking you to follow in my shoes."

"It was a really, really powerful conversation," says Toy. "The atmosphere was electric. The younger brother was just soaking it up. It was like watching his whole demeanour change." After this conversation, Rick was transformed: the rest of his secondary-school career progressed smoothly and quietly.

"People who've been through this life often don't want their children to get involved," says Toy. "They want to play down links to the gang; they don't want it to be part of their child's life at all." Similarly, gang members will often be quite clear that they don't want younger brothers or sisters to make the same choices as them. "They'll say, 'I made some bad turns on road, I've chosen a certain lifestyle.' They made the wrong choice, and they don't want their younger brother doing the same kind of thing. Once you're involved, it's really hard to get out. So don't get involved in the first place."

Tomlinson recommends that schools in gang heartlands bring in external consultants to reinforce this message. "Young people are more prepared to open up if they don't have to worry about seeing the person they've spoken to in the lunch queue, talking to their head of year or something," she says.

Toy, however, argues that pupils will open up to teachers, too. He has come across many teenagers who aspire to be teachers or youth workers. This, he says, is usually because they have been helped by an understanding member of either profession. "They are in school, and they are reachable," he says. "Just listen to them. Don't say anything. Listen. Give yourself enough time to listen, and kids will talk to you. If they believe you're someone they can trust, they will talk to you.

"They've been talked at for too long: told who they can't talk to, where they can't go. If you listen to what they're saying, they will absolutely soak up like a sponge what you do have to say. That element of trust is so, so important."

Tomlinson agrees. "You can tell some people are just dying to get something off their chest," she says. "They've been holding it in so long, they just want to get it out. But you have to gain their trust."

Kneecappings and beatings

At his school in south London, Jack's counsellor gradually gained his trust. Over the course of a year, Jack began to calm down, and to manage his aggression in the playground and the classroom. His mother, meanwhile, similarly developed a good relationship with the counsellor. "A gang offers identity, status, protection, for people who don't have other sources of self-esteem," says Adams-Langley. "But they learned that there can be other ways of achieving self-esteem - schoolwork and achievement."

The Place2Be also worked with Dan, the 10-year-old bling-covered son of gangster parents. "We gave him attention, without him joining a gang," says Adams-Langley. "He started to look at the outcomes of being in a gang: murder, violence, jail. It isn't just trainers, gold and new clothes. In the end, he had the strength to say, 'I don't want that life.' You can never guarantee. But it seemed as though we'd really helped him to think."

Inevitably, however, not all gang endings are happy. After Reggie's father had stormed out of school, his son's headteacher was left to negotiate the consequences. "I was petrified for weeks," he says. "I spoke to the police, and they offered to speak to him. I thought, Jesus Christ, that's the worst possible thing. But they thought he was probably just frightening me. It worked."

Following police advice, the head parked his car in front of the school each day, and came and went during daylight hours only. One day, he noticed some suspicious-looking strangers hanging around outside the school gates. He left by the back exit, and his deputy drove his car around to meet him there.

"Rightly or wrongly, there was a sense that we were all at risk," the headteacher says. "It could have been misplaced, of course, but there were stories of kneecappings and beatings. It's human nature to be anxious. But you can't keep acting like that. After a while, you have to be sensible." And, with one more reiteration of the need for absolute anonymity, he hangs up the phone.

Children's names have been changed.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today