Why Our Knife Crime Crisis Shows Social Mobility Still Matters

We like to claim that we’re living in a true meritocracy, but there is no denying that opportunities are hard to come by if you’re not in the ‘right circles’ or groups
PA Wire/PA Images

The UK’s knife crime problem is becoming uncontrollable. According to the BBC, some 39,818 knife crime offences were committed in the 12 months ending September 2018. The home secretary, Sajid Javid has called it ‘senseless violence’ and after a series of stabbings across the UK, there is clear problem that needs to be resolved.

As with many social issues, we tend to turn to the cure and look to increasing police numbers or to regulations on the sales of weaponry. But an increase in police officers only papers over the cracks – we rarely talk about the root cause of the issue and how we can prevent knife crime at its source. At its heart, it comes down to opportunities for the young people that are getting caught up in crime and talking about it makes us uncomfortable.

Social mobility has become an important word in politics – but what does it actually mean? Whilst there are many definitions of social mobility, it boils down to being able to seek the same opportunities, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds or social groupings. We like to claim that we’re living in a true meritocracy, but there is no denying that opportunities are hard to come by if you’re not in the ‘right circles’ or groups. We’re seeing the gap widen and the impact of not taking it seriously is trickling down to the opportunities and barriers facing young people today.

Research shows that an overwhelming number of suspects and victims of knife crime are male and between the ages of 16 and 24. Many come from low socio-economic backgrounds and are faced by challenges such as exclusion from school or being surrounded by gang violence. The challenge is to provide young people with opportunities should they fall out of ‘the system’. And above this, the goal should be to create a system that works for all. Albert Einstein notoriously compared the education system to a tree, where a monkey would thrive and climb to the top but it is near enough impossible for a fish to attempt the climb. We need a system where there are more than just ‘trees’ available to young people – there should be streams, oceans and deserts available for them to succeed and pursue options that work for them. And what does that look like? We need to upskill young people so they are able to break down barriers that prevent them from thriving. We need to embrace vocational opportunities in the same way we champion other forms of further and higher education. Young people are also leaving school without basic qualifications and their employment options quickly become limited. The biggest barrier of them all is the cultural challenge and social integration. We’re living in a hostile environment, now more than ever and segregation risks creating additional barriers to the most vulnerable groups.

Whilst we can’t change social attitudes overnight, the key to taking social mobility seriously is to acknowledge it as a real equality challenge in the UK. Other forms of inequality such as gender and racial inequality are now more openly spoken about and acknowledged as an issue. We are fighting to get ethnic minority representation on boards and to beat the gender pay gap. We are yet to collectively acknowledge that social mobility is a pillar of equality that needs to be addressed. Measures need to be taken in workplaces and in the education system to prevent the widening of the gap. And as with many social problems, we need to talk about it and acknowledge that social mobility is still a problem. This involves asking ourselves what we can collectively do to prevent segregation and hostility. Social mobility challenges aren’t as visible as other diversity challenges but we risk letting the gap widen until another crisis emerges as a result of socio-economic inequality. But must it take another crisis like our knife crime problem for us to accept that something needs to be done?