Posted on 22/03/2019
Under the Knife
Knives. They can do incredible good or devastating harm. In the hand of a surgeon they can save a life, while, as we have seen in Fulham over the last few weeks, in the hands of another they can bring life to an end. In my Headmaster’s blog this week I want to put the whole issue under the knife. Explore the causes of knife crime, put forward how FBS should respond, and then give my own personal view on what I believe is the real problem and the only ultimate solution. But at the outset let me be clear. Knife crime is not an easy problem to solve. I agree with former Police Chief Superintendent John Sutherland (inews 5th March 2019) when he said, ‘We need a long term plan for dealing with knife crime… We need to understand that, when problems have been a generation or more in the making, they might just take a generation or more to mend. We have got to get beyond the relentless demand for quick fixes’.
Some believe the increase in knife crime is linked directly to cuts in policing. A 20% reduction in police budgets has led to a loss of nearly 20,000 officers across the country since 2010. Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, has said that boosting police numbers is an “important part of the solution” in tackling rising crime, while Peter Neyroud (Financial Times 20th November 2018), former chief constable of Thames Valley Police and now a criminology lecturer at Cambridge University, is clear about why violence is rising: not enough ‘feet on the beat’. But although the police are the ones who need to respond to knife crime, they cannot solve the problem because it is not in their power to change the issues that influence the problem.
Gangs, tough neighbourhoods and drugs
A huge part of the problem is gang culture. Young people are more likely to carry a knife if they are in a gang. Extensive research confirms this (Fitch, 2009; Felson, 1986, as cited in Marshall, Webb, & Tilley, 2005: Dodd, Nicholas, Povey, and Walker, 2004, as cited in Marshall et al., 2005). The chances of becoming a gang member are more likely in neighbourhoods where there is social and economic deprivation. Gang members tend to come from communities that have existing gangs and high youth crime. Young people in these communities feel marginalised so join gangs for excitement, company and understanding (Squires, 2009). These young people are groomed to get involved with drugs; to become addicts and also drug runners. Perhaps unsurprisingly McKeganey and Norrie (2000) found a strong association between drug use and the possession of weapons. Consequently, because some people carry knives others feel they have to (Marfleet, 2008, as cited in Squires, 2009).
The breakdown of family life is obviously a significant factor. Difficult family relations and a lack of family guidance and support result in many of these young people becoming involved in gangs (Lahey, Gordon, Loeber, Stouthamer-Loeber, & Farrington, 1999). Instead of family, young people are influenced by neighbourhoods and peers (Thornberry et al., 2003). John Sutherland says that when he began his police service he noticed the increasing number of parents not giving guidance or rules to their children, who grew up and had their own children who likewise showed a lack of moral standards, and so it continues in cycles. This results in an increasing number who do not care about others, or how their actions affect others. Cuts to youth services are unlikely to have helped here. At their best, they provide teenagers with positive activities, help them develop, meet new friends and socialise. But funding is down about a third per pupil on youth services since 2015. YMCA chief executive Denise Hatton said “Without drastic action to protect funding and making youth services a statutory service, we are condemning young people to become a lonely, lost generation with nowhere to turn,” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-43668167)
The London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, believes the blame should be placed at the door of schools and in particular permanent exclusions. Permanent school exclusions in England have been rising since 2013, and so has the number of children being arrested for knife offences. However, some of these children were excluded because they possessed a knife rather than the other way round. Ofsted chief, Ms Spielman (BBC, 12th March 2019) says exclusions are not the root cause of the surge in knife crime. “Children who carry knives almost invariably have complex problems that begin long before they are excluded”. Research also shows that poor quality school performance, low attendance and a lack of commitment in school have been associated with gang involvement (Thornberry et al., 2003).
Mental health and Learning difficulties
Mental health is also a factor that cannot be ignored. According to data in 2015, four times as many children in England who had committed knife offences, and seven times as many children who had been excluded from school, had special educational needs, compared with the rest of the pupil population. All of this is compounded by cuts to school funding. Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis shows 8% reduction in per pupil spending since 2010. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-44794205
So what should our response to all this be?
- Be safe. Do all we can not to put ourselves in dangerous situations. Boys need to go straight home after school.
- Be compassionate. Think about the people who are heartbroken because they have lost someone they love to knife crime, as well as the young people who live in these tough neighbourhoods where the pull to join gangs is so strong.
- Be thankful for our school. The ethos, teachers, co-curricular opportunities and experiences we enjoy.
- Be brave. We are Londoners. We won’t be paralysed by fear but get on with our lives and go about our business as usual.
- Be determined. Never to be the kind of young men who will join gangs and carry knives. Always remembering, a team is where a young person can show their courage while a gang is where a coward goes to hide.
- Keep standards high. We cannot put up with poor conduct and attitude. If we do, schools will become unsafe, miserable places where pupils are unable to learn and thrive. We need strict discipline, clear boundaries and a no nonsense approach to bad behaviour all firmly but fairly applied. We owe it to all our pupils not to take a soft approach.
- Provide all our pupils with the outstanding opportunities and support they need to thrive, enabling young people living in poverty to have the same chance as their more affluent peers to go to university or find meaningful employment. Education is transformational and through it we can help break the poverty cycle.
- Make school a great place to be. Our boys spend 20% of their time at school. It is a place where they adopt behaviours and form social attachments. So let’s make school somewhere safe and happy.
- Engage families. Do all we can to involve all parents in the life of the school, particularly the harder to reach. I’ll be ensuring that I – or one of my deputies and assistant heads – is in reception at Parent Consultation days to just talk to parents – let’s get in the habit of having positive conversations, not just communicating when a boy is in trouble. We want to have more activities and events for boys and parents such as our lads and dads and international food evenings; run parent courses outside school hours – using staff skills to offer these; have parent ‘drop in’ sessions in neutral environments – maybe a coffee shop; make home visits; run English as an additional language support sessions for parents; and fitness/healthy lifestyle sessions. We’re prepared to do whatever it takes to really engage and build relationships. We see this as being so, so important.
- Work with the police and others on building positive relationships and breaking down barriers. If all we do is take a hard line it may lead to feelings of mistrust and resentment among young people towards the police (Walsh, 2011), school and authority. Police need to work with communities, get alongside these young people to build trust; come into school to build a rapport with and provide mentoring and guidance for young people. Schools shouldn’t be worried or precious about having police at the school in this context. The best schools should be comprehensive which means they include all kinds of pupils. Some will therefore be from tough neighbourhoods where they are at risk. Let’s not pretend otherwise and kick the can down the road.
- Ask the boys what they think, particularly those at the ‘sharp end’. Young people are a big part of the problem and can therefore be a very large part of the solution. We need to involve them in designing and delivering every single aspect of the response to knife crime.
- Provide co-curriculum opportunities in the evenings and that extend into school holidays. Some of our boys have idyllic home lives and go on amazing holidays. They travel the world. Spend time with their families and live life to the max. Others don’t. During the holidays they have weeks and weeks to just kick about. Let’s give these boys productive, exciting things to do so they haven’t got time on their hands to get into trouble or join gangs. We have to fill the void. FBS and the Friends of FBS need to work together on this.
- Ensure as a school community we are what we say we are: comprehensive. Middle class parents spending time with working class parents. Different cultures and ethnicities on the same table and in the same team at quiz nights. Let’s bring the marginalised into the fold and get rid of ‘them and us’ and group think. It may be uncomfortable to start with but let’s break down barriers and put into practice what we preach. Let’s not just play at it and be guilty of champagne socialism. Let’s prove that postcode really doesn’t matter.
- Be socially enterprising. Look to help poor communities in really practical, sacrificial ways.
- Speak up on these issues. Say that we think family is important. Keep emphasising the importance of character. Not be frightened to challenge political correctness and aggressive liberalism if it dictates otherwise.
- Provide and be positive role models. Boys need heroes, people in their life they can look up to and get their values from.
- Get more schools out there like FBS! Schools which draw from all kinds of backgrounds. Black Caribbean, black African, white working class, white middle class, European, Asian, boys from private school backgrounds, those living in social and economic deprivation, all rubbing shoulders together.
THE REAL PROBLEM AND THE ONLY SOLUTION
But while I think that all the causes above are real and the responses are necessary and will make a difference, I do believe the causes are in fact just symptoms and the responses will only go some way to sorting out the problem. As a Christian I think the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. Jesus Christ said, ‘Out of the heart of person, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within…’ (Mark 7.21-23). If we are going to really sort out the problem, people’s hearts need to change. I have worked in education for the past 22 years, alongside the police, health professionals, psychologists and social workers. All doing a great job and have made a positive difference. But none of us have managed to change hearts and all too often have been left feeling impotent. So many of the problems we deal with are too big for us. The only one that can really make the difference is the one who said those words in Mark 7, which is why at FBS we think our boys should at least be introduced to him. They are then, as always, encouraged to think, question and work out what they believe.
BBC (12th March 2019) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-47537631
Financial Times, November 20th 2018
Fitch, K. (2009). Teenagers at risk: The safeguarding needs of young people in gangs and violent peer groups. London: NSPCC. Retrieved January 20, 2013, from
inews (March 5th 2019) https://inews.co.uk/opinion/knife-crime-police-numbers-theresa-may-police/
Lahey, B. B., Gordon, R. A., Loeber, R., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., & Farrington, D. P. (1999). Boys who join gangs: A prospective study of predictors of first gang entry. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 27, 261-276. doi:
Marshall, B., Webb, B., & Tilley, N. (2005). Rationalisation of Current Research on Guns, Gangs and Other Weapons: Phase 1. London: UCL Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science. Retrieved February 14, 2013, from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/scs/downloads/research-reports/gangs-and-guns-report
McKeganey, N., & Norrie, J. (2000). Association between illegal drugs and weapon carrying in young people in Scotland: school’s survey. British Medical Journal, 320, 982-984. doi: 10.1136/bmj.320.7240.982
Squires, P. (2009). The knife crime ‘epidemic’ and British politics. British Politics, 4, 127–157. doi: 10.1057/bp.2008.40
Thornberry, T. P., Krohn, M. D., Lizotte, A. J., Smith, C. A., & Tobin, K. (2003). Gangs and delinquency in developmental perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Walsh, M. (2011). Knife crime: The reality and its implications. London: The Kiyan Prince Foundation. Retrieved February 14, 2013, from http://www.kiyan.org/newsite/wp-content/uploads/Knife-Crime-The-Reality-and-Its-Implications4.pdf