by Kurt Barling
BBC London's special correspondent
Mayor Boris Johnson’s adviser on policing, Kit Malthouse, says he can see the benefits of putting knife arches in London schools. This is just one of a range of interventions being proposed to tackle knife crime.
What is the purpose of proposing to make knife arches or hand held knife detectors a more permanent presence in London schools?
At face value these “extreme” measures would ensure that schools and further education colleges would be preserved as safe zones for young people and deter knife carriers.
"Many perceive the problem of street violence is so prevalent now that anything showing the school authorities mean business is welcome"Kurt Barling
There is of course an implicit suggestion in all this that technology can crack the problem of knife crime amongst teenagers and that schools are somehow unsafe places. On current evidence neither is necessarily true.
Schools are not known as hot beds of criminality. None of the reported deaths in London have taken place on school premises and the proposal is for roving arches to be placed in schools occasionally but unannounced.
Many secondary school head teachers remain deeply sceptical about the usefulness of such an approach. David John Troake at Haling Manor School in Croydon believes it would prove a practical impossibility to monitor each of the 800 children coming into his school daily.
Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor for policing
Firstly, he points out that unlike business or college premises, schools tend to have several entrances and children tend to arrive all at the same time. Secondly to scan is one thing but to search is another and it would require a huge male and female presence.
Haling was involved in a pilot use of a knife arch. Unfortunately, the police were less than thorough in searching all the children, certain children appeared to Troake to be singled out and the whole thing he recalls descended rapidly into chaos.
He is also of the view that if a knife was brought into school, it would be quickly reported to a member of staff by one of the pupils.
The National Association of Head Teachers has adopted the same position and is against the use of such “extreme measures”. The greatest fear seems to be of stigmatising schools and children in an era of competition.
Parents could form a perception of a school being rough and tough even if there is no evidence to support. Schools might adopt this approach simply out of prudence.
Parents we canvassed outside another school, the Paddington Academy secondary school took a more pragmatic view. Many perceive the problem of street violence is so prevalent now that anything showing the school authorities mean business is welcome.
The real value for them is the deterrent effect it will have on the few school pupils who carry knives for offensive or defensive purposes.
Ironically, one of the most important constituencies in this whole debate is made up of those most at risk from this type of random bullying and violence, the pupils themselves.
It is very difficult to gauge how they feel about such measures. Given there seems to be little evidence available publicly, it begs the question of why haven’t they been canvassed more widely?
Just north of Croydon at Merton Further Education College I was given a different assessment by the Deputy Principal, Neil Jordan. Although it is still highly contentious, FE Colleges do actively canvass their student body. Acting as a magnet for six form students and older members of the community makes introducing random knife arch checks a different proposition.
At Merton College the authorities told the student and staff body that at some point they would be using a knife arch on the premises. In February the Met Police and Merton rigged one up unannounced and monitored everyone coming into the college.
Jordan says it was seen by the authorities as a reassurance measure.
Interestingly only one person was stopped with a knife and that was not one deemed to be lethal. As far as the authorities were concerned this vindicated their use of the arch and say it demonstrated to the student body that knife carrying was not at epidemic levels.
CONEL College in Tottenham, north London, piloted a knife arch experiment in 2006.
The Principal at CONEL College says one of the drawbacks was the perception created by local media that there must have been a problem in the first place. Overcoming this negative PR impact is clearly going to be important.
The 17-year-old chair of the Merton College student parliament, Aaron King, believes that there was a lot of shock and anxiety when the pilot initially ran. Now his assessment is that the student body recognises the value of the knife arch experiment and the possibility that it will be used unannounced again.
Student representatives say whilst it is highly unusual, as a reassurance measure it is not entirely unwarranted.
Away from enforcement or deterrence there is still the big question of how our communities challenge the culture of knife carrying among a tiny minority of young people. How can the majority of young people go about their peaceable business without being worried sick that some day soon they may become a victim?
Unfortunately many schools remain unwilling to stimulate a broad debate within the school to encourage this cultural shift. Those that do bring outsiders into schools to address the risks posed by knife crime often associated with gang membership are extremely nervous about journalists coming to report on it. Just in case their school’s reputation becomes tarnished.
In recent years I have been into a number of secondary schools where interventions have been based on an arts project or speeches by victims or perpetrators. I have always been impressed by the understanding of the problem and the balanced perspective that the students themselves bring to the debate.
Last week, for example, I visited the Petchey Academy secondary school in Hackney. A group called Breaking the Cycle brought a message of non-violence into the school assembly. Breaking the Cycle was set up after the Columbine High School massacre in the US.
The presentation I saw by former New York gang member Sergio Argueta was certainly powerful oratory. Whilst it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of these types of event, only the most hardened cynic would argue that stimulating intelligent debate amongst young people is likely to be fruitless.
The young audience of 12 and 13 year olds were attentive and gave an enthusiastic ovation after the talk about the possibility of them (boys and girls) having to take personal responsibility for dealing with violent incidents. Many believed the conversations stimulated by the talk would continue inside and outside school.
Petchey’s Principal, David Daniels, makes no bones about his intention to provide his students with constant reminders of the choices being made available within the academy. Choices he believes schools need to be more proactive in promoting, in order to counteract opposing influences out on the sometimes mean streets.
Sergio Argueta - former gang leader
There is a concern that the desire by newly elected politicians to make an impact is driving the growing clamour for an enforcement approach. It is easy to show something is being done. Even if that something is not necessarily striking at the root causes of the problem.
The Mayor’s other deputy, Ray Lewis, who is charged with tackling youth crime is seemingly busy auditing what is already happening to tackle the problem and how those at the sharp end (victims and their families in particular) feel we should be adapting our approach.
The challenge is ensuring that any enforcement led proposals don’t cloud the quality of the debate which is needed to deliver safer schools and streets for young Londoners. Above all a conversation that those most at risk, young people themselves, must take a leading part in.