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Under The Knife

Alun Ebenezer, headmaster of The Fulham Boys School, discusses rising knife crime

Alun Ebenezer

Figure Image
photo: iStock

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 London over the last few weeks, in the hands of another they can bring life to an end.

Knife crime is not an easy problem to solve. I agree with former Chief Superintendent John Sutherland 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’.1

The causes:

Policing. 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, former chief constable of Thames Valley police, is clear about why violence is rising: not enough ‘feet on the beat’.2 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, neighbourhoods & 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. 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.

Family breakdown. The breakdown of family life is obviously a significant factor too. Difficult family relations and a lack of family guidance and support result in many of these young people becoming involved in gangs. Instead of family, young people are influenced by neighbourhoods and peers. 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.

Schools. 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. Ofsted chief, Ms Spielman, 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.’

Mental health & 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.

Our response individually

So what should our response to all this be? As headmaster of The Fulham Boys School, I tell my pupils to be:

1. Safe. Do all we can not to put ourselves in dangerous situations. Boys need to go straight home after school.

2. 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.

3. Thankful. For our school, and the ethos, teachers, co-curricular opportunities, and experiences we enjoy.

4. Brave. We are Londoners. We won’t be paralysed by fear, but get on with our lives and go about our business as usual.

5. Determined. Never to be the kind of young men who will join gangs and carry knives. Always remembering that a team is where a young person can show their courage, while a gang is where a coward goes to hide.

Our response collectively

I tell my staff to:

1. 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.

2. Provide. Give 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.

3. Engage families. Do all we can to involve all parents in the life of the school, particularly the harder to reach. We’re prepared to do whatever it takes to really engage and build relationships. We see this as being so, so important.

4. Work with the police 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, school and authority.3 Police need to work with communities; get alongside these young people to build trust; and come into school to build a rapport with and provide mentoring and guidance for young people.

5. 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 groupthink. 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.

6. 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.

7. Provide, and be, positive role models. Boys need heroes, people in their lives they can look up to and get their values from.

The real problem and 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 a 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 making a positive difference. But none of us have managed to change hearts and all too often have been left feeling impotent. 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, and I 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.

1. (inews 5 March 2019)
2. (Financial Times 20 November 2018)
3. Walsh, M. (2011). Knife crime: The reality and its implications. London: The Kiyan Prince Foundation. Retrieved February 14, 2013.