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Farrer & Co | Protecting children from knife crime

This article summarises two recent research reports: Ofsted’s "Safeguarding children and young people in education from knife crime: Lessons from London" (the OFSTED Report) and the Children’s Commissioner’s "Keeping Kids Safe" (the CC Report) and highlights five key principles to which Schools can practically adhere to reduce the risk of their students being affected by knife crime. The advice in this article is also applicable to other organisations like sports clubs or charities working with children.

The article also gives the perspective of Andy Smith, Designated Safeguarding Lead at Manchester Grammar School, whose pupil, 17 year old Yousef Makki, was one of the victims of knife crime this year. Andy shares his experience on how schools can effectively deal with the aftermath of knife crime affecting their students.

Reflections in the aftermath of knife related tragedy - by Andy Smith, Designated Safeguarding Lead at Manchester Grammar School

I am grateful to Katherine for her article below, for its raising of awareness of the risk of knife crime in schools, and for the five principles it espouses. While adherence to these five overarching principles can help schools reduce the risk of knife crime affecting their pupils, just as with the general approach to safeguarding, schools should maintain an attitude of “it could happen here” and be ready to respond quickly and appropriately to incidents.

In March this Year, Yousef Makki, an engaging, academically gifted and popular sixth form pupil at The Manchester Grammar School, tragically lost his life as a result of knife crime. This senseless act has left a community in grief, and the many lives it has touched will have been deeply affected and will continue to be so for a long time to come.

The immediate aftermath of such a shocking and catastrophic event is particularly difficult for a school to manage because there are so many factors which need to be responded to simultaneously. The importance of having a pre-existing, effective crisis management strategy cannot be underestimated.

In common with many crisis situations, decisions have to be made in a very short timescale and there needs to be an effective team who can pull together quickly and focus on what needs to be done. Understandably, there is the immediate need to offer pastoral support to pupils, their families and staff. This is complex because it is not always easy to identify all those who have been impacted psychologically by such an incident. This was definitely the case with Yousef, as he was active within the life of the School, well-known and popular, not only with his own year group, but also with many younger pupils.

In this sort of incident, one aspect of the response which can be emotionally challenging, even for experienced staff, is the liaison with the police and other statutory authorities who have an immediate need to investigate what has happened. This can be a traumatic experience for teachers at a point of considerable distress. For a teacher who has devoted their professional life to the care of young people, the nature of investigative processes can compound a sense of sadness and vulnerability. Representatives from the school may have to suppress their emotional response to the tragedy and respond in a professionally objective manner. However, creating a relationship of mutual trust and confidence with the authorities in these types of situations is absolutely essential for this type of crisis to be successfully managed.

One should never underestimate the difficulties associated with media management of any major event. This has to be carefully considered and is an area where a school may need to call on outside expertise; it is certainly better to have this in place before you need it. Press statements need to be carefully worded and they must be published at the right time, in a coordinated way; the feelings and wishes of the bereaved family and the requirements of statutory agencies must be paramount. In the months after an event there is still much work to be done to support pupils and staff, and offer as much support to the bereaved family as possible.

At Manchester Grammar School there will, undoubtedly, be difficult times ahead for us. We feel that, as well as dealing with the immediate issues, we need to look more broadly at how we respond to the issues about serious youth violence and knife crime which this tragic incident has raised. Of course, addressing these issues is not the exclusive concern of any single agency, as it is the product of multiple, complex issues; however, working with others, including the local authority, the police and the voluntary sector, we hope that we may be able to make some headway.

The School will be playing its part in this response through its involvement in a newly formed steering group of Manchester schools which will consider the challenges facing schools from the risks posed by knives and serious youth violence in the city. The intention of this group is to give schools an opportunity to explore the interventions currently being used in schools and the community, and to consider further recommendations for training and the support needed for schools. We plan to work with partners from other agencies, such as youth justice, police, the complex safeguarding hub and community safety, in considering how we can safeguard our young people from the risks of child criminal exploitation and youth violence.

Broader Lessons for Schools

The prevalence of knife related crime in the UK has been described as an "epidemic" (BBC article here). As of 17 May 2019, over one hundred people were fatally stabbed in the UK in 2019. Almost half of the victims were under 30 and seventeen were aged 19 and under. 

Figures from the Ministry of Justice show that in the year to September 2018, of the 21,381 people cautioned, reprimanded or convicted for carrying a knife in England and Wales, one in five – a total of 4,459 – was under 18, the highest number for eight years.

The Department for Education has updated the statutory safeguarding guidance, "Working Together to Safeguard Children" to place a much greater emphasis on the need to recognise external threats to children, including gangs and criminal exploitation. The new guidance also stresses the importance of "contextual safeguarding", broadly defined as threats outside of the home, alongside domestic issues.

Speaking at a meeting of one hundred experts from criminal justice, health, and youth work backgrounds at the opening of a Downing Street summit on 1 April 2019, Theresa May warned that the UK “cannot simply arrest itself” out of its knife crime problem and will need a “multi-agency, whole community” response to tackle the problem. She unveiled proposals for a new legal duty obliging frontline workers in schools, hospitals and police stations to “spot warning signs” of violent crime among young people.

But speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (Episode on 6 April 2019), Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield said schools “don't often feel that they've got the tools or the systems” to deal with children who may be involved in, or at risk of, violent crime. She added: “We've got to think of more creative and effective ways to help these children.”

An overview of the research

The OFSTED Report, published in March 2019, is based on research carried out in schools, colleges and pupil referral units (PRUs) in London. The research looked at three broad questions: firstly, what are these settings doing to safeguard children and learners from knife crime while on school premises? Secondly how are they giving children the knowledge and skills to stay safer in their local communities? And finally, how are exclusions being used when children bring knives to school?

While the OSFTED Report used London inner-city schools as the data source, its recommendations should be interpreted broadly and all schools, whether located in urban areas and whether state maintained or independent, can learn from the experience of the settings they sampled.

The CC Report, published in February 2019 and based upon research over the preceding twelve months, is focussed on gang behaviour and investigates what it means to be a child gang member in England. It estimates how many children in England are in gangs and looks at the risk factors which make it more likely for a child to end up being groomed for gang membership. Finally, it questions whether those responsible for safeguarding children are responding adequately to the rise in gang violence and how children can better be kept safe.

Five principles stand out as particularly important for schools to have regard to:

1. Monitor children at every stage of their educational journey, identify risk factors and act upon them.

It is integral that schools "take a life course approach recognising that while a child may be drawn into a gang as an adolescent, the underlying reasons why they were susceptible almost certainly appeared years earlier."

Schools are encouraged to identify risk factors among their student population early on. The OFSTED Report identifies three categories of risk for knife-carrying: at the highest level of risk are those children who have been groomed into gangs, for the purposes of criminal exploitation; underneath this lies a group of children who have witnessed other children carrying knives, have been the victims of knife crime or know someone who has carried a knife for protection or status-acquisition or who are encouraged to believe knife-carrying is normal through the glamorisation of gangs and knives on social media; and then there are children who carry knives to school as an isolated incident, for example, they may carry a penknife that a grandparent has gifted them.

Almost all children who become involved in knife related crime are vulnerable in some sense, but the children most at risk have multiple interlinked vulnerabilities: Gang associated children are more likely to experience, parental substance misuse, neglect, violence at home, offending in the family, housing instability, school instability, mental health issues and self-harming behaviour.

Schools are encouraged to gather information about children’s susceptibility to involvement in knife crime. The OFSTED Report highlights that many school leaders they spoke to were concerned that when accepting a child who had been excluded, they were not always being given all the information they needed to ensure that they could meet the needs of excluded children.

Once risk factors are identified, schools need to ensure that they are monitored and not exacerbated by the response when the child’s needs first emerge. For example, a child could be supported within school instead of off-rolled or excluded, they could receive mental health support instead of being turned away, or they could have their special educational needs recognised (and receive appropriate support) instead of being left to struggle.

2. Engage and educate children throughout their time at school.

Both papers highlight the need for senior leaders and school staff to understand the law on knife-carrying and knife offences generally so that there is a common approach to educating pupil and responding to such incidents.

It can be good practice for school leaders to identify groups of children who are at an increased risk of exploitation and – in line with the guidance in "Working Together to Safeguard Children" – to develop a bespoke set of activities aimed at these children. School leaders should consider how their personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) curriculum reflects local safeguarding issues and trends, including knife crime.

Some schools favour using outside agencies to lead on the curriculum in this area and see these agencies as having greater credibility among young people, better knowledge of the subject area and, as a result, having more impact on children’s learning. Research evidence suggests that there are benefits to interventions being delivered by people with direct experience with knife crime, but that it needs to be delivered sensitively. "Scaring children straight’ may in fact have negative effects and lead to more offending behaviour. Evidence points towards the importance of those delivering interventions being experienced at working with young people."

Schools can make use of materials which are publicly available, for example the new and improved school curriculum materials on knife crime produced by the Home Office has been and the Personal, Social, Health and Economic Association and Lesson plans feature real-life case studies of young people from the latest #knifefree Government campaign along with new content on the importance of having good role models.

Schools should also consider educating parents about the risks of knife crime, for example through after-school workshops.  The OFSTED Report advises that these workshops should provide parents with information on the characteristics of pupils who are more likely to be drawn into criminal or unsafe behaviour, and advice in relation related topics such as drugs and domestic violence, often with the assistance of external providers. The report also recommends school leaders should raise awareness of the dangers of grooming and criminal exploitation among both parents and children.

3. Children should perceive school to be a safe environment.

Both reports highlight the importance of ensuring that children perceive their school to be a safe place, especially where these children have turbulent home lives, or do not receive emotional support from friends and relatives. School leaders interviewed in the OFSTED Report tackled this challenge through their schools ”policies and practice, their zero-tolerance approach to bladed objects, their clear expectations of pupils’ behaviour, [and] good levels of supervision at the start and end of the school day, including on the school gate and at the bus stops.” Leaders also set high expectations regarding pupils’ behaviour outside of the premises, for example on the buses they travel in on.

An integral part of ensuring that school is perceived to be a safe place is the implementation of procedures to deter children from carrying knives on the school premises. The OFSTED Report sets out the wide range of different methods the schools in their sample had to searching children for the possession of weapons on entry to school:

  • no routine searches: searches are intelligence-led, relying on third-party information
  • random searches: searching pupils randomly either termly, fortnightly or weekly: this could involve knife arches, wands, bag searches or pat-downs; consent is either obtained by the pupils individually at the point of search or agreed with pupils and parents in the behaviour policy on enrolment
  • daily searches: searching pupils daily on entry to school, as above (most common in PRUs)

    • frequent searches: searching pupils multiple times per day (most common in PRUs)
    • perimeter searches: searches of the surrounding area of the premises, sometimes carried out by police liaison/safer schools officers (SSO) and sometimes teachers/staff.

While the OFSTED report found some schools firmly believe that searching children on entry to school keeps children safer, others do not, maintaining a strong ethos against criminalising children, or calling the police, in response to a child bringing a bladed article into school.

4. Co-operate with other schools and external agencies to ensure consistent relationships and support.

It is vital that schools share full information with one another when pupils and learners move schools to safeguard them, as well as other pupils and learners. The CC Report states:

"Where children leave the school or college, the designated safeguarding lead should ensure their child protection file is transferred to the new school or college as soon as possible (…) the designated safeguarding lead should also consider if it would be appropriate to share any information with the new school or college in advance of a child leaving. For example, information that would allow the new school or college to continue supporting victims of abuse and have that support in place for when the child arrives".

A recommendation which comes across strongly in both reports is that schools must ensure that they have systems in place to facilitate collaboration with outside agencies and organisations, such as children’s services including youth clubs, the police and the NHS. The CC Report advises that ‘effective safeguarding needs a multi-agency approach’, because it is when children fall through the gaps in the system that they become most vulnerable.

This appeal for increased collaboration is also endorsed by school leaders, one of whom interviewed by OFSTED stated:

"A plea from me would be to have a much more coordinated response. There is not a quick cure – it’s about prevention and we need to look at a prevention strategy and then an intervention strategy. These might look different at primary, secondary and further education".

OFSTED acknowledge that co-ordination across these agencies can be difficult, but propose that local safeguarding partnerships should coordinate their efforts to ensure that these processes are as clear and easily accessible to schools as possible.

5. Ensure permanent exclusion is a last resort.

There is a striking connection between exclusion and knife crime, along with other serious forms of criminal activity, and exclusion is an issue about which both reports are resolute in their findings. The CC Report states that there is extensive evidence linking school exclusions with gang involvement, and that the act of excluding a child in itself makes that child more vulnerable to activity of this kind. 

The OFSTED Report recommends that all contributory factors as to why a child has carried a knife into school should be considered before the school decides to carry out an exclusion. It further advises that all schools should ensure their exclusion policy reflects the practice set out in the Department for Education’s statutory guidance, and that local authorities, as part of a strategic response, should challenge schools when exclusions do not appear to be in line with statutory guidance. This puts in place a necessary hurdle to schools which might, if left to their own devices, too quickly settle on exclusion as an easy solution to a complicated problem.

  • When reviewing exclusion, School governors need to look at whether the headteacher considered alternatives to exclusion, such as a managed move or the pupil being directed to off-site provision together with careful scrutiny of (1) what steps the school takes in relation to educating young people about knife-crime, in PHSE or other lessons (2) how the school informs pupils about the contents of the behaviour policy, whether pupils input to the policy and how often are the contents of the policy reinforced? (3) How the school implements and monitors other relevant policies such as safeguarding, anti-bullying, drugs? The context of the school will of course be relevant when looking at the extent of measures taken by a school and whether those measures were reasonable and adequate.

The 30 recommendations of the Timpson Review (a government commissioned review of school exclusion) which were published alongside the Government’s on 7 May 2019 also highlight the need for scrutiny of school exclusions. A key recommendation being is that the Department for Education should make schools responsible for the children they exclude and their educational outcomes. The Government response is that Schools will be made accountable and a consultation will be launched in the autumn to seek views on how to tackle the practice of “off-rolling”.

Farrer Safeguarding Unit comment

  • Knife crime falls at the extreme end of peer-on-peer abuse. Whilst it is a specific risk which needs addressing in its own right, the principles of peer on peer abuse and the approach set out in our Peer on Peer Abuse toolkit should be followed.
  • As a minimum, schools should give thought to the introduction of either a stand-alone weapons policy, or referencing weapons within a peer on peer abuse policy. The Farrer and Co Peer on Peer Abuse toolkit includes an example weapons policy at appendix C which is a good reference point though schools should always tailor a policy to their particular setting, for example recognising that children in boarding schools will legitimately have razors and scissors on site. 
  • OFSTED advice to maintained schools may not translate easily to independent schools or other bodies such as sports clubs. In independent schools the possession of, let alone use of, a knife will invariably be a breach of school rules so serious that exclusion will fall to be considered. However, understanding the context will be a key consideration before reaching any decision. 
  • Schools and other organisations will face situations where a young person is being investigated and may have been arrested in connection with knife crime. The challenge of how to provide ongoing education whilst Police enquiries continue is a major one. Once again, we refer to our Peer on Peer Abuse toolkit and the use of a safety plan in these circumstances. The application of the principles set out in our advice on safety plans will help organisations to identify and assess the risks involved, to consider what mitigation measures can be put in place, and to consider whether sufficient mitigation can be put in place to minimise risk to an acceptable level. It may be difficult to secure directive input from external agencies in such cases – so be ready to take your own decisions confidently.  An honest and well thought out risk assessment is hard to challenge.  A safety plan with the buy in of external agencies likewise. 

Conclusion

No matter how talented, intelligent, affluent or seemingly well-behaved the children, knives are a risk for all children and young adults.  It is of paramount importance that schools, even those situated far from urban areas who have not experienced an incident, maintain an attitude of “it could happen here” in relation to knife crime, upskilling staff, pupils and parents and being constantly proactive not reactive.

If you require further information about anything covered in this briefing, please contact Katherine Fudakowsku or David Smellie, or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, October 2019

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