Professor Colin Diamond CBE, Professor of Educational Leadership
School of Education, University of Birmingham
When government ministers are looking for a soft target to test out their latest ideas or deflect blame for the failure of their policies, you can guarantee that they will turn to schools. In recent years secretaries of state have pronounced that schools should teach about sailing, eating carrots, fake news, sexting, obesity, agriculture – the list goes on. But proposals to hold teachers accountable for preventing knife crime have taken this questionable habit to a far more serious place.
Rarely has the announcement of consultation from the Home Office been greeted with such universal derision. There is a consensus that cuts in preventative services and reductions in school budgets (over 10% since 2010) have resulted in more vulnerable young people not receiving the wrap around support they need. This has led to greater levels of isolation, alienation and exposure to risk out there in our urban environments. Inevitably, more young people have become wrapped up in street violence and once in that mix, it is very hard to escape.
We know that if students are not in school, they are at risk of becoming part of gang and petty criminal culture. Schools have faced impossible choices when forced to reduce staffing. Largely because of the hyper-accountability regime driven by league tables and Ofsted-phobia, school leaders have deleted posts dedicated to pastoral support, care and counselling. Many schools offered “barefoot” social work support to young people and their families but much of that has gone.
Outside school, youth centres were the place where many young people on the margins of education would gather. They were safe havens that offered non-judgemental spaces that were otherwise missing from young people’s lives. Since 2012, 760 youth centres have closed with the loss of 139,000 places. Detached youth workers are no longer out on the streets signposting young people towards positive activities and away from criminality.
Teachers do not feel trusted by the government as a steady stream of sound bites reveal that ministers are in denial about the crisis in school funding and workload fatigue. Record numbers of teachers are quitting after just a few years in the profession, feeling undervalued and Ofsted at the top of their reasons for departure.
To add a public duty whereby schools must report students where there are concerns about knife crime related matters will only serve to exacerbate existing problems. It is misplaced and will have unintended consequences. There are parallels with the arrival of the Prevent duty which created a climate of fear of under-reporting possible extremist behaviours and over 90% false positive referrals in some areas of the country. This resulted in a huge waste of resources following up false trails because teachers feared being blamed for extremist incidents in the community. We can expect a similar set of responses if teachers are asked to report knife crime concerns. And none of the above will address the problems at the root of why so many young people are trapped in violent street culture.
Education policy since 2010 has forced schools to focus on narrow results at the expense of whole-student well-being. The Academies Act 2010 has created a fragmented schools system which is remote from joined-up children’s services. The team around the child and family, at the heart of the Children Act 2004, has been vandalised by neo-con culture. Schools are here to educate: not report on what may be happening in the community in a way that is far beyond conventional safeguarding.
There is much good that schools can do here but they are not islands in the community. The best way forward is to listen, actively, to what young people tell us of their condition. Knife crime summits are well intended but become adult echo chambers because the government pays lip service to youth engagement. Young people are the authentic voices that understand cause and effect and why, so often recently, stabbings result in serious injuries and death.