Schools need more help in tackling their pupils' gang involvement and should not be expected to take the lead on what is a community problem, a new report says.
While there is no widespread problem of gang-related activity in schools, it is a serious concern in some, with teachers at one school reporting that children as young as nine were becoming involved on the fringes of gangs. The report cited one school where some pupils had worn body armour to protect themselves from attack. Weapons confiscated from pupils included knives, batons, air rifles and even a meat cleaver.
The NASUWT teaching union-commissioned study, published today, found that schools in urban areas such as Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Nottingham were most likely to be affected and the number of gang members aged under 16 years-old has more than doubled in the last five years.
Schools need to shape their education programmes to "deglamourise" the lifestyle young people commonly associate with gang membership, such as taking children on "prison visits" as a deterrent, the report suggested. Staff would benefit from training on gang culture so they have a better understanding of the issues facing young people, it said.
But the problem is too complex for schools to tackle alone and it would be inappropriate for them to take the lead, the report, by research consultancy Perpuity, found. Instead, they should work within local partnerships that include parents to reduce gang involvement.
In particular, pupils excluded from school are more likely to become involved in gangs, so "systems to track pupil attendance are paramount", the report said. "Staggered school closing times may prevent clashes between rival gangs in local communities and shorter lunch breaks have been adopted in some schools to limit 'free time' and prevent outbreaks of violence," it suggested. Schools also reported that having a police officer on site helped to reduce violent behaviour.
The report suggested that it is essential to challenge attitudes at an early age and develop resources for use with children of primary school age who may be at risk of gang involvement. "Although young people in this study reported that they were most impressionable at ages 13 and 14, staff raised concerns that primary school aged children were on the fringes of involvement," it said.
The research included four case study schools in England that had concerns with gangs and gang culture. Some of them felt "the problem had increased over the last few years with gangs becoming more dangerous involving children at a younger age". In one school, there were concerns that young people were becoming involved in gangs as young as age nine, 10 and 11 and being "used by older gang members to transport firearms and drugs".
Teachers at an urban school in an area where several several gang-related shootings had taken place said they were aware of young people wearing body armour in school for fear of attack.
The most common weapons found in schools were knives – one school had a "drawer full" of confiscated knives – but teachers also reported having seen air rifles, pellet guns, batons and in one incident, a meat cleaver.
Deprivation, family breakdown, the absence of father figures and lack of positive activities were given as reasons for the emergence of gang culture. "This combined with the attractive lifestyle, for instance the financial rewards commonly associated with gangs was thought to contribute to their ongoing presence and influence on young people of school age," the report said.
Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, said: "The research suggests that there is no widespread problem of gang related activity in schools but where it exists it is of significant concern. It is clear that gang problems need to be acknowledged by schools to enable them to be tackled head on. There is a real danger that some schools will be tempted to conceal or fail to address such problems for fear the reputation of the school will suffer.
"This is a common problem in relation to many behaviour issues and has to be tackled by the government. Schools need to feel confident in dealing with these issues." She said schools should feel free to exclude pupils that threaten the education of other pupils and that they can have a full-time place at a specialist units so they are not on the streets.