Gang Culture: Cameron's 'Tough Love' Is Helping No-One
Inevitably, schools have taken their share of the brunt. And while half the country mourns the good old days of canes and terrifying teachers, even the Prime Minister seems to have decided the cause of all evil is due to lack of discipline in education.
On Friday, David Cameron announced he was adopting a "tough love" approach to discipline, while, plans for a military-style free school now lurk menacingly in the background.
But for the teachers who spend their working lives with children in gangs, and for those parents whose children have been killed in the violence, it will take more than soundbites to bring the UK's youth back from the brink.
In fact recent reports suggest there could be more than 250 gangs in London alone - and those gangs are getting younger and younger.
For all the criticism it may be that only schools have the ability to reach children with enough speed, resources and patience to make a real difference.
Yvonne Lawson is a teacher at a primary school in North London and lives in Enfield. Her son was knifed to death in the street when he returned from Oxford one weekend to visit childhood friends.
For her Cameron's statements about discipline and "tough love" miss the point.
“The idea strict discipline will prevent children joining gangs is completely wrong. Children need to be taught to empathise with each other," she said. "They need to be taught how to forge relationships with each other."
Children as young as five are already being drawn into gangs, Yvonne said.
"They will probably join a gang when they’re older. They need to be taught respect. It is so important for younger children to have social skills. Some of them have no way of communicating which leads to all this challenging behaviour. I know some schools are very protective of their young pupils and don’t want to even mention the word knife. But they see violence all around them. So why shouldn’t they learn about it? We can’t protect children forever. We can address violence positively.”
Psychologist Dr Gaelle Villejoubert, who lectures at Kingston University says that young people join gangs to take control of their lives. If schools educate those children earlier about the negative side of gang culture, there is a chance they will pull back.
"The illusion of being in control and it leading to good things is part of the reason why many youths join gangs. They see their peers indulging in criminal behaviour and follow by example. If these children were educated on the negative effects of knife crime and gang culture, they probably would not be tempted to join. It is very much a case of copying what they see others doing, especially if they only see the glamourous side.”
A project led by Lambeth police and the surrounding community has started educating children in schools as young as nine on the fatal consequences of knife crime. The initiative, Growing Against Gang Violence, is to be extended across 15 London boroughs in 280 schools. Surgeons and police officers will visit classrooms to talk about delivering messages to parents and treating knife wounds.
But some feel this is still not enough, and have taken it upon themselves to push the message even further.
Ray Donovan and his wife Vi set up the Chris Donovan trust in memory of their son who was murdered by a gang a week before his 19th birthday.
The Donovans have written a booklet aimed at schools and educating younger people on the effects of gang culture. The couple are hoping 'Five Minutes of Madness: A Lifetime of Regret' will encourage children to see past the perceived glamour of gangs and realise the full, often fatal, extent of joining one.
“Gang members are using children as young as four to carry their weapons," Ray Donovan said. "These children need to be educated about gang culture as young as possible. Our son was murdered 10 years ago. For my wife and I, and many others, it’s too late.”
Ray’s calls for the lessons to be given to younger children were echoed by Sally Knox, who is the mother of Harry Potter actor Rob Knox, who was stabbed to death in May 2008, aged 18.
Knox says it is never too early to address the problem: “My talks are mainly requested for secondary schools but I have also talked in primary schools to years five and six. At this age they are moving on to new schools and I believe this is the best time to start this kind of programme before they form their new friendships and spend more time out on the street alone. It is at this stage they need to be taught about respect for themselves and others and also need to be aware of dangers on the street.”
On August 31, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg unveiled an inquiry panel which would “listen to communities” in the hope of finding a solution. But some think the government is not looking in the right places.
Ray Donovan said that the riots illustrate a wider problem that has been ignored for too long: “It’s sad it has taken something as big as the riots to kick-start the government into taking action. This is just a knee-jerk reaction to the riots. It’s not getting to the root of the problem. Part of the reason the riots spiralled out of control were the already-formed large gangs who readily joined in without hesitation. One of the biggest problems is schools are reluctant to admit they have a gang problem. One school refused to let us talk to their pupils.”
Ultimately, however, even schools may not hold the key to such a complex issue as gang crime. The solution can only be for children to decide themselves that gangs are not the way to go - and sadly many parents still see no evidence of that happening.
"Hearing someone has been shot or knifed to death just washes over them," said Loretta Allen, whose son was shot and killed by a gang member. "These young kids who think a life of crime is the way to go need to be stopped in their tracks. You could be a good, single parent living on an estate and your child could be bullied or threatened into following gang culture.
"This thing about not ‘grassing’ seems to be the fear which controls these young kids or naïve young adults is so overwhelming. I still have not got justice for my son due to this wall of silence which police can’t seem to penetrate."