We have all seen the appalling and, apparently ever growing, incidents of teenage knife crime reported in the media. Certain elements of the press seem to take a perverse joy in screaming headlines at their readers, predicting the collapse of society and laying the blame at whichever door is open at the time.
Immigration. Lack of family values. Too aggressive policing. Policing that is too liberal and afraid of being accused of racism. Schools. Lack of funding.
Quamari Barnes – A Promising Life Cut Short
One of the saddest of so many tragic cases involved 15 year old Quamari Barnes, who was stabbed and killed at his school, Capital Academy in north-west London. Quamari was his own young man; confident but not arrogant, prepared to follow his beliefs. He enjoyed reggae while his peers were into rap and grime; he attended dance classes, often the only boy present. He enjoyed cooking. After his death, a friend left candles, balloons and a Jamaican flag at the school gates. A message though, said more than the gifts. ‘It was only yesterday you told me how proud you were that I chose drama, You made me think I was beautiful and confident. You stood up for me when no-one else did.’
Stories like Quamari’s, awful as they are, tell us that we should do anything we can to tackle teenage knife crime.
But, for teachers should that moral expectation become a statutory duty?
Dispelling Myths Around Teenage Knife Crime
Before addressing the question, two more alarming statistics. Firstly, the number of children carrying knives in London schools rose by 50% between 2014 and 2016; secondly, some data from local authorities and academies indicates that a knife is discovered every hour on students in our schools.
The first point to address in debating the extent of teacher’s duties here is that there is very little accurate data available to inform a judgement. Teenage knife crime involves youngsters; that makes reporting tricky. It suits the worst excesses of the media to sensationalise the problem; and, it suits politicians of all parties (remember David Cameron’s ‘hip hop causes death’ attack on the BBC?) to push parental panic buttons by highlighting incidents when they occur. In a 2017 article, ‘Beyond the Blade’ the Guardian published a thoughtful review. It highlighted that knife crime plays on our perceptions. We see it as being associated with males, usually black and of West Indian descent and committed by evil kids. Yes, it is predominantly a male problem but data that does exist challenges the other two assertions.
Plus, as teachers, we know that very few kids are evil. There are children who do evil things, but that is not their normal state. Even the Metropolitan Police themselves accept that most children who carry knives do not do so because they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs or gangs – all things the tabloids would have us believe. No, they carry knives because, simply, they are scared. It is a sign of the times that schools can be overtly criticised for not doing enough to help prevent knife carrying among their pupils, but are offered no congratulations for their part in drastically reducing the number of children using drugs or alcohol since the turn of the millennium.
Aren’t Schools Already Doing Their Bit?
How then, as teachers, can we help? The answer is a tricky one. Most of what we can do we are, in many cases, already doing. Does any school not highlight the dangers of knife carrying to its students? Many offer education for parents, which is great, although those who attend are often those who need it least, and any of us with teens know that when mum and dad say something, it is often treated with disdain by our knowledgeable young ones.
Which, of course, does not mean all our children are carrying knives – far from it – but by the time students reach their teens, attempting to address problem behaviour of any kind is an uphill task.
A Useful Resource for Teachers
Knife Crimes.org is a registered charity that seeks to address the growing problem of knife crime. Its website contains a lot of useful information, and its intentions are clearly well meaning. It is certainly worth a teacher scanning through the site, picking up information for a PSHE lesson (although whether this topic best fits health education, citizenship or social learning is open to debate.) The site contains some good links, but it is difficult to see it really appealing to young people; and certainly not those who might most be in need of better understanding the dangers of knife crime.
The best of these links is the site’s ‘Count Me In’ window, which contains some handy lesson plans, assembly guides and resources including videos. Class tutors, PHSE teachers and pastoral staff would benefit from spending half an hour reading through its fourteen or so pages of information and resources.
Perhaps the most useful aspect of the site is the confirmation that the best way to tackle knife crime is a long term one. It highlights the importance of developing self esteem in students. It is here that schools can really play their part.
Building children’s self-esteem is, of course, a key part of any educational programme. Providing opportunities for sports, arts, music; delivering lessons that engage pupils, making them feel good about themselves – these are matters that surely all schools and teachers support, even if extra-curricular provision can be difficult to offer in some situations.
But is this going to drag young people away from gangs, away from the streets and into making a useful contribution to society? Is it going to make their perceptions of society change, so they feel safe without a knife in their pocket? Well, it will help, but not solve every problem.
Schools can play their part in reducing knife crime on our streets, but it is not their responsibility to find a solution to this problem. That answer must be found by society as a whole.