Is it the fault of unruly, bloodthirsty teenagers or is it a sad reflection on our society and how we educate our children?
Another week ends with yet another young life needlessly and brutally being lost.
We are now at a point whereby only extraordinary murders are being reported nationally as most incidents only make local newspapers or news bulletins, such is the prevalence and regularity of these horrific crimes. Sadly, the victims pass without so much as a cursory glance from most of us as we go about our busy daily chores, not really or deeply empathising with the family members who mourn their loved ones. The unbearable grief and deep sense of loss that parents must inevitably experience at having their child taken in this manner is impossible to broadcast.
As a society however, we have become numb to this mindless scourge even though this disease has spread from our tough inner cities and now afflicts even the most affluent of neighbourhoods. It would appear that no-one is safe anywhere as pointless and indiscriminate stabbings are occurring in the most unlikely of places and for the most innocuous of reasons. So just why have we come to accept such a low benchmark for what we deem the norm in our country? Why are we unable to prevent more young lives being lost and consequently more young people taking to the streets armed with knives to protect themselves?
A common and predictable response from politicians and influencers is to blame the merciless cuts to public spending and in particular the enforced reduction of police numbers. Whilst this may be true and the negative impact of such reductions in spending must take its’ toll at some point, this does not get even close to explaining the root causes of such unwarranted and barbaric behaviour. So just what can be at the heart of causing young people to resort to taking such risks and subsequent liberties with life itself?
I started working with young people as a student teacher back in 1986 and I have since dedicated my entire adult life and career over the past 33 years to listening, working with and attempting to motivate teenagers and our younger generations. In this time, I estimate that I have crossed paths with over 300,000 young people across the world, in a massively varying range of situations, giving me I think, a unique perspective on how our children see life and more importantly see themselves.
Having brought 4 of my own children into the world and watched them grow into successful, happy and healthy adults, I know just how hard raising and guiding young people can be. But for me, that’s where it all starts. At home. My children were brought up in a warm, caring and loving environment where morals, ethics and values were at the very heart of our family life. I hasten to add this was a huge contrast to my childhood and how I was brought up and that is why I feel well placed to comment. I broke the cycle and gave my kids the stability and guidance that I never received as a child and young adult. I gave them lessons from the mistakes I made as an adolescent that caused me to become involved with gangs, crime and the police.
For me, environment is everything. Detailed study and research into cell biology is now changing the way we understand the contributory factors of child development. Environment at cellular level really does define how cells respond and develop and that is also true of our children, they adapt and respond to the environment in which they are born and raised. Having grown up in a tough Merseyside council estate in the 1970s, I had to adapt to the surrounding environment in order to survive physically and socially. I had to develop a new language, a skillset and almost a new persona in order to flourish in the environment in which I was growing up. I will discuss home life again in just a moment but there is a second environment which has equal importance and influence of the lives of our young people. School.
There are two environments that are constant in the lives of most young people for the first 16 years of their life, home and school. Please note, I said constant, I didn’t say stable or consistent, but most young people have a home life and they have a school life. I realise that I am stating the obvious but these two environments are at the heart of child development and play a hugely significant role in how a young person sees themselves and the world around them. If home life is not providing the stability, guidance and consistency that a young person needs it then falls upon the school and the dedication of teachers and adults in that community to provide those things; and in my experience, many teachers and many schools do that responsibly and admirably.
However, when both home and school life fail to positively influence a young life this then becomes a recipe for disaster and tragedy. In my humble opinion and as controversial as this sounds, our education system is one of the root causes of knife crime. Please be clear, I am not blaming teachers, I am blaming the system, the policy makers and politicians. Our education system fails young people and society in a number of ways.
The first of these ways is by insisting that lessons are taught in academic subjects and progress is measured by the recall of facts in tests. Imagine if our entire school curriculum was based on emotional, social and psychological development helping young children make a far better transition into adult life. Imagine if our teachers and schools were allowed to focus entire projects on love, respect and relationships? Imagine if our young people’s lessons were built around collaboration on projects in which they engaged the community in which they lived? True, some schools do these things brilliantly, but I mean intentionally putting these experiences at the heart of the curriculum.
What if the primary focus of our Ofsted inspections was around ‘happiness’ and inspectors came into measure how happy our students were? Imagine if one of the primary aims of education was to improve the emotional literacy and wellbeing of all our children? In motivating teenagers with confidence building activities, I am not talking about lessons that are bolted on to the staple diet of Maths English and Science, I am suggesting that lessons in relationships, in love and in life are epicentral to our education. I am suggesting that we teach our young people about marriage, having their own children and developing the skills they need to become successful and accomplished parents themselves one day.
When young people are at their most responsive and impressionable, we have the best chance to break cycles of negative family environments and to teach children about what a stable family life built around society’s expectations and needs could look like. For those young people who get these messages at home, this will simply reinforce what their responsible parents have taught them. For those young people who have not had the benefit of these examples, myself included, they will then have a blueprint and a template of what a happy and healthy family life could look like and how they can aspire to and help develop it for their children.
The science around brain development in particular teenage brain development is emerging at a rate of knots but we continue to overlook it within mainstream education. We know boy’s brains develop more slowly; we know they need more sleep and appear disinterested; we know they are prone to taking risks. Yet we fail to educate them about the social paradigms that will inevitably entice them into far riskier and more damaging lifestyles. Our provision for drugs and sex education is embarrassingly behind other countries and well below what it needs to be.
The compulsory first eleven years of our education system does not prepare young people for adult life, it prepares them for a series of exams, by which they will be measured and against which they will measure themselves, pretty much for the rest of their life. In my experience, that singular concept in itself does more damage to the way a young person perceives their place and role in society than anything else. There are so many young people who are disenfranchised and disillusioned with school by the time they leave. For many students, the failures they experience daily in school reinforces their negative image of themselves, their abilities and their futures.
At the most vulnerable moments of a teenager’s life they seek to belong, to be accepted, to be respected by their peers and they seek to be noticed by the people they admire. I have been to over a thousand schools worldwide and every one of those schools had a ‘pecking order’. I encourage every reader at this point to dwell on your own school days and identify the pecking order at your school, in your year group because there was one. This social hierarchy is prevalent and important in every school. It is the metronome by which youth culture within the school ticks. Either knowingly or unknowingly every young person feels the power and influence of the pecking order.
When teenagers give up on grades, school, parents and teachers; when they stop trusting adults; when they stop trusting the police; when they give up on society; they will and do inevitably look for other things to make them feel better about themselves even if the risks and stakes are high, indeed because the risks are high. Being well placed at the top of the school and local Pecking Order will help a teenager far more than getting good GCSE’s, or so they think. I meet students in primary schools every week who are well aware of those local teenagers who are at the top of their neighbourhood pecking order such is the prominence of these people. Predictably within that hierarchy, there are those at the very top who have long left school and who are both respected but feared within their communities. Sadly, for so many young people these are the only role models and heroes they have to aspire to.
To stop knife crime and other social diseases such as bigotry, racism, and homophobia, we have to address them, at source both at home and in school. Bullying prevention, confidence building activities and different pedagogical approaches can all contribute to make school a better place. Only when, as a society, we demand that our education system is questioned; when we challenge the status quo; when we insist that school truly prepares our youngsters for life; when the policy makers reform education; when the focus is changed from academic knowledge to emotional literacy, will we ever begin to impact and reduce knife crime and this sad indictment on our society.