A commission has found that austerity has played a central role in creating the conditions for the spike in knife crime around the country, reports Kiri Tunks
Sajid Javid’s announcement this week that public sector workers could be held legally accountable for a failure to address knife crime was met with anger and despair by public sector workers everywhere. It is an indication of how out of touch this government is with the reality of most people’s lives.
It is also an indication of how bereft of ideas they are, falling back on the culture of blame and shame when what is needed is real answers.
It is a despicable ploy by the government to pass the buck to front line staff already doing their best to meet the needs of young people in the face of huge funding cuts and the slashing of vital services. It implies that school and health staff aren’t already doing their best to safeguard young people.
The truth is that we know only too well when our young people are troubled or suffering but when we try to refer them for help, we find the services they need are not there.
The safety net has gone.
Funding for education, social care and support has been slashed and our children are paying with their lives.
Javid pays lip service to a public health approach but if it’s the same as their approach to the National Health Service, we are in big trouble. We need real honesty about the causes of youth violence; real engagement with communities to find answers; and the provision of properly funded services, not the tired mantras of ‘more police on the streets’ and ‘zero tolerance’.
I have recently been part of a commission in Waltham Forest, co-ordinated by Waltham Forest Citizens, which brought together a wide range of organisations and individuals to listen and talk about the causes of youth violence and possible solutions. Over 1,200 people from schools, colleges, faith groups, businesses, councillors, youth organisations, the police and, most importantly, hundreds of young people themselves have united in a civil partnership and have now produced a report on their findings.
This Commission identified 5 key factors in youth violence:
- the increasing number of young people being excluded from education by a system which is focussed on exam targets;
- the impact of adverse childhood experiences such as neglect, abuse and trauma (including domestic violence and exposure to youth violence)
- Poor relationships between young people and the police with young people (especially from BME communities) expressing fear and distrust of the police
- The growth of gang culture in areas of poverty which is drawing young people into drugs and child sexual exploitation
- A lack of opportunity and economic inequality
Austerity has had a catastrophic impact on our young people. One third of young people in this country live in poverty and the number is projected to rise. This is not simply indefensible in the fifth richest country in the world; it is wanton neglect.
We know that poverty has a huge impact on the life chances of young people and yet many of the services and support that used to exist have been slashed by government funding cuts. We know that the first few years of a child’s life are key to ensuring positive outcomes in education and beyond. It is calculated that a school only accounts for between 9-13% of progress in a child’s life and that social and economic background has a huge effect on their academic achievement, and yet this government has cut funding for Sure Start centres, children’s centres and nursery schools.
Surveys by the National Education Union show the extent to which schools and their staff are attempting to ameliorate the situation with food banks, provision of resources and clothes, opening schools during the holiday so that children can access a meal; all at a time when their own funding is being cut. Local authority funding cuts mean that support services they used to provide are no longer there.
Poverty is a key factor in the mental health problems and adverse childhood experiences but there are fewer professionals available now to address this. Children are waiting six months or more for a referral to the Child and Mental Health Services (CAMHS), such delay often resulting in protracted ill-health or the worsening of symptoms and effects.
Increased exclusion of young people from schools is another worrying development with large numbers of children being illegally off-rolled by schools attempting to manipulate their pre-exam populations. These children are often from poorer communities or have special educational needs which aren’t being met; a disproportionate number of them are African-Caribbean. Without proper provision or oversight, these children often become isolated and alienated from their families and communities.
This is something of real concern to the National Education Union and we have commissioned research into exclusions from the Education Policy Institute. A grassroots campaign, No More Exclusions, is bringing together educators and community experts to challenge the practice of exclusions and to build a culture in which we nurture all our young people, meet their needs in our schools and communities, and do not just discard when they are troubled or troublesome.
As public sector cuts hit, and many specialised services are axed, the expectation is on schools to make up the slack. But there is no slack in school budgets and educators are not trained for many of the roles they are now expected to take on. This is a problem that our politicians have created and one that society as a whole must address.
There are some great responses to these issues. One group is StopWatch which is campaigning to ensure that stop and search is carried out fairly and within the law. They have created advice for young people on their rights and responsibilities, including an app which they can use to record their interaction with the police. This knowledge about rights is essential for young people and asserts their status as citizens who deserve respect.
The police were centrally involved in the Waltham Forest Commission and have committed to work on collaborative projects to get things right. Just putting more police on the streets won’t address the root causes and that is what is needed now.
Other action points that the Commission has proposed are mentoring (there are already planned training sessions and connections being made); cultural projects; self-defence & urban awareness programmes; parenting support; employment and training opportunities.
There is real anger and despair about the poverty in our communities and the needless deaths of so many of our young people. The Commission has been an inspirational initiative to listen to young people and their experiences, and to show them that they matter.
Sajid Javid needs to do a lot less talking and a lot more listening. We are clear that what is needed is joined-up thinking and we are committed to fight for that. As one of the young Commissioners said at the launch of the report last week:
“It’s hard to be a young Black person. This Commission has made me feel not so afraid.”
Given that these young people are coming together to find solutions, it’s a shame that Sajid Javid is just resting on soundbites.
Kiri Tunks is Joint President of the National Education Union