The knife crime epidemic: In defence of schools

Written by: Matt Ward | Published:

The on-going knife crime epidemic in our cities has sparked a sound-bite response from politicians and others, who seem set on blaming schools. Matt Ward explains

Another poor teenager dies on the streets of our capital and we hear the same old clarion call that “schools must do more” (SecEd, 2019). The lack of joined up thinking is utterly tragic.

“Schools must do more,” and with one broad brush stroke the well-dressed politicians who usually make these comments bat their own responsibility to one side and heap yet more pressure onto an education system already approaching breaking point.

Schools have always been used as political footballs, but never like this, and certainly never when the stakes have been as high as they are with what many now believe is a youth knife crime epidemic.

Rarely, however, are there easy or simple solutions to complicated and implacable problems such as youth knife crime. The sharp rise in youth knife crime is symptomatic of a wider societal failure, one that without question, has been exacerbated by a decade of austerity.

Inner city areas, already deprived before austerity are now genuinely desperate. Over the last decade welfare spending on the very poorest in our society has been cut by more than £37 billion. Youth centres have closed by their thousands, tax credits have been cut by £4.6 billion, Universal Credit by £3.6 billion, child benefit by £3.4 billion, incapacity benefit by £2 billion and housing benefit by £2.3 billion (Guardian, 2018).

And all of this is playing out amid a backdrop of a hugely rising cost of living which has resulted in a massive rise in the number of families who are forced to use food banks just to survive.

For many young people, especially in the inner city, there is a tangible feeling that there really is no hope anymore, that their lives are destined for the same cycle of poverty and struggle that they see around them every day.

As the number of people losing loved ones to knife crime continues to rise, the one thing we need more than ever is an honest and open debate on the causes and possible solutions to this knife crime crisis.

There is one other major contributing factor that is rarely discussed in today’s climate, even though it is intimately linked to youth knife crime: overwhelmingly knife crime is a young male problem. In London, for example, 95 per cent of those caught with a knife are male and 60 per cent are under 25 (BBC, 2016).

Knife crime is also highly symptomatic of gang culture, something that has been deeply studied in the US over the last 20 years. The conclusions of these many studies are highly relevant to the UK.

In one US study after another, three key questions are often asked:

  • Why do gangs form?
  • What is it that gangs provide for the individuals in them?
  • Why do young people join gangs in the first place?

Interestingly, one common factor always seems to crop up in answers to all three questions – family (Hill et al, 1999; National Gang Center FAQs).

According to these studies, gangs seem to form for a number of reasons. They might form because of the absence of unconditional love in a family or because of an absence of positive role models.

In almost all cases the breakdown of proper accountability and discipline within the family home is intrinsic in a young person deciding to join a gang.

As a result of these various family deficiencies it was the gang, as an entity itself, that became for these young people a surrogate family. They joined because, like all young people, they needed the feeling of security, boundaries and love that was missing from their family home, which they then believed they received from joining a gang.

Young people, overwhelmingly young men, join gangs because they have a dysfunctional family that has failed to provide the unconditional love they require or the boundaries they have so desperately needed.
It is, after all, not schools that should be asking the pertinent question every young male needs from time to time: “Where were you until midnight last night?” “Who are your friends?” or even “Do you carry a knife?” This responsibility is primarily for the family.

What is increasingly clear is that the notion that “schools should just do more” is a gross, and somewhat perverse, oversimplification of a highly complex problem.

Commentators have been quick to make connections between the rise since 2013 in school exclusions in England and the rise in the number of children being arrested for knife offences (BBC, 2019). Indeed, schools in the UK today find themselves at the very centre of a raging debate that is fuelled by this deadly crisis within our youth.

The stakes could not be higher for the young people we teach, yet it is much too simplistic a view, and thoroughly insincere, for politicians and national leaders to merely attribute the root causes of these problems to schools alone – and that by implication they should be the ones to resolve this crisis.

Youth knife crime is a multifaceted issue which will require complicated, painful and long-term solutions, from multiple actors – from national government, local government, the police, local communities, support services and families, all moving together. It is as a part of this group that schools have a legitimate and crucial role to play.

What society needs is a well thought out and integrated approach, not sound-bites on national television from smoothly dressed politicians.

Implying that schools should simply “do more”, and that the burden rests alone on them reveals a callous disregard for the true causes of this burgeoning crisis.

Worse still, such an attitude betrays a heartless indifference to the young people and the families this knife crime epidemic has already ripped apart.

  • Matt Ward is lead teacher for behaviour at an inner city academy. Follow him @MWardBehaviour

Further information

  • Teachers worried over knife crime accountability proposals, SecEd, April 2019:
  • Welfare spending for UK’s poorest shrinks by £37bn, Guardian, September 2018:
  • Knife crime: Why are more youths carrying knives? BBC, December 2016:
  • Childhood risk factors for adolescent gang membership, Hill et al, Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 1999.
  • Risk factors FAQs, National Gang Center, United States:
  • Knife crime: Are school exclusions to blame? BBC, March 2019:


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