RugbyWorks Employability Manager Tom gives his view on the ever growing issue of knife crime amongst young people. 

By the end of 2018, stabbings in London had risen to their highest level in a decade and tragically the trend has shown no sign of abating - as of March 2nd there have been at least 13 knife related murders this year. But while the intensity of recent violence has drawn significant publicity, it is in reality the latest episode in a narrative that has developed in plain sight for decades. The current homicide rate in London is certainly shocking compared with recent years, but nonetheless in line with the number of violent deaths in the early 1990s and 2000s. Sephton Henry, a former gang member who spent much of his young life in prison elaborated the point in a recent interview, “I’ve seen stabbings all my life - I’ve seen my friends die all my life. You’re talking about it now because it’s coming on to your radar.” It’s a legitimate challenge to all of us. Without truly committing to look at why these awful tragedies occur, our public grief will be heartfelt but ultimately in vain as time passes.

As RugbyWorks coaches, we are working daily with the same group of young men who are at the forefront of these recent atrocities. The steep rise in school exclusions, 44% since 2012, was recognised as a key driver of recent events in the government’s Serious Violence Strategy, published just under a year ago. Although our young people are perceptive enough not to inculpate themselves, we know that many of them are running errands for gangs for reputation and money. It is crucial to remember that this connection with school exclusion was made in the wake of the Tottenham riots eight years ago; when more than a third of those involved had been excluded from school that year. As far back as the early 90’s, school exclusion rates have been linked to spikes of violent crime amongst young adults in London.

The steep rise in school exclusions, 44% since 2012, was recognised as a key driver of recent events in the government’s Serious Violence Strategy

So what is it about school exclusion that brings it constantly into the conversation? It might be an open and shut case; those who behave poorly in school will do so outside of it, so some responded in 2011 anyway. The reality is that school exclusion is much less a cause of crime than it is a simple indicator of a young person’s propensity to offend. Crime and school exclusion grow from the same roots; low self-esteem, socioeconomic status, absent parents, low school performance, employment prospects and community deprivation are chief amongst many other complex factors. That 63% of the prison population were excluded from school at some point demonstrates this overlap. Our young people are easy targets, handpicked by gang figures who know just how listless and eager for respect they are because they were once in the same position. It is an inter-generational cycle of recruitment as unchanging and constant as the social factors that underpin it.

The reality is that school exclusion is much less a cause of crime than it is a simple indicator of a young person’s propensity to offend.

Putting our young people in a position where they are not drawn in to this needless violence, we believe, is a question of empowering them with the personal tools and tangible opportunities to break this underlying cycle. By providing an environment grounded in the positive values of rugby and our coaches as trustworthy, reliable role models, we know that our young people can do just this. RugbyWorks coaches design their sessions to develop crucial soft skills such as communication, attitude, autonomy, core-thinking skills and reliability that are the foundation for success in seeking employment. All the while, the values of sportsmanship, respect and teamwork lie at the core of all we do. In this environment our students can often find a rare positive space of reassurance, confidence and aspiration. It's easy to forget that it may be the only such space in their lives, but it's essential for us to understand if we want to support them. 

They say the first step in solving any problem is recognising that it exists. If we are to make any progress against knife crime, we have to recognise the problem in its entirety. Focussing exclusively on police numbers and stop and search powers shows that we are currently unwilling to do so. A durable solution must address the vast and complex array of causes, recognising knife crime as a much broader public health issue as Scotland has done with great success. As a RugbyWorks coach, it is clear to me that this is the only way. On one hand, we see daily how our permanently excluded young people can respond to personal support and concrete opportunities for a better future.  On the other, we can see that without this support, excluded students will continue to feature in the discussion of violent crime as they have done for decades.

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