Combating juvenile knife crime – is there a role for schools?

I have just watched Emily Thornbury on the Andrew Marr show (11 Nov 2018) being asked about the view of the London Mayor that, “the problem would take a generation to solve”. Ever the journalist, Marr was trying to get her to contradict London Mayor Sadiq Khan. In her response she emphasised the depth of the problem and the vital role of education in solving it.

This will have been interpreted by most as ‘educating young males not to carry knives’. This usually results in lots of ‘sagely nodding’ by the police, politicians and the worthy, while the murders appear to be continuing unabated. The other controversial ‘remedy’ is ‘stop and search’. Given the large numbers of young black men that are said to be causing the problem, what should be done with those found carrying knives? Our prisons are already barely under control, violent and full of drug users all of whom have eventually to be released, so how would it help?

To be clear, although it has been reported that the vast majority of youths involved in knife crime have been excluded from school, I am not suggesting that the health and safety of pupils in any school should ever be compromised by the presence of violent, drug dealing members of criminal gangs. But if schools could help prevent the formation of such groups in the first place such exclusions would not be necessary.

Part 1  School Councils

What if the solution lies primarily not in the education of boys, but of girls?

 I now jump to Professor Becky Allen’s post (Part 3) about the pupil premium, but not in relation to ‘closing the gap’.

Graham Nuthall’s New Zealand studies showed how students live in a personal and social world of their own in the classroom:

They whispered to each other and passed notes. They spread rumours about girlfriends and boyfriends, they organised their after-school social life, continued arguments that started in the playground. They cared more about how their peers evaluated their behaviour than they cared about the teacher’s judgement…

I have written previously about the role of the School Council in my headship school in Barrow-in-Furness. If you are to make sense of my argument in this article, you will need to start here.

Barrow-in-Furness has more than its share of social problems, but knife murders is not one of them. I have lived and worked in the neighbourhood for thirty years and although they may have happened, I cannot recall a single case, so what possible relevance can a Barrow comprehensive School Council model have? So, assuming you have read my article about it, I will try to explain.

My assertion is that over a decade, the School Council structure and systems fundamentally changed the nature of the boys’ and girls’ peer group hierarchies in our school.

I am now no longer in my comfort zone of science education and learning theories and must dip into sociology while also recalling my own childhood and the pupil peer cultures in the many schools in which I have taught.  As a primary age child growing up on a terraced street in 1950s Birmingham, the junior school age boys’ peer group was based on who was the ‘hardest’ and most daring. A fair bit of fighting was involved to establish dominance, but such fights ended when the first combatant started ‘blarting’ (Brummie for crying) and dominance had therefore been established.  At my selective single sex secondary school a similar hierarchy structure remained, encouraged by the PE department’s school rugby team culture. The school’s approach to settling pupil disputes was to arrange ‘boxing matches’ to settle them. Shouts of ‘Fight, Fight’ would ring out in the playground and then pupils would mass in a ring around the combatants to encourage the violence and try to prevent the teachers from intervening.

As we grew older this hierarchy status also began to involve bragging about sexual conquests. In co-educational comprehensives this is when the girls’ dominance hierarchy melds with the boys. The musical ‘Grease’ seems a fair reflection on the general idea.

I suspect that most women will recall their own school peer hierarchies in which the girls first compete to be in the friendship group of the dominant females. This later evolves into competition for the attention of the most dominant males, but also generates a competing inverse hierarchy of unwanted ‘slut/slag’ status, which is the basis of most girl on girl school bullying.

The Alfred Barrow School Council addressed all that, but we did not know or even suspect that this would be the result when the initiative was started. The initial purpose was as a vehicle for genuinely combating all bullying which, according to successive OfSTED inspection reports was very successful, with our School Council officers explaining it to MPs in Westminster on two occasions.

In KS3 there were ‘form group’ based elections to the ‘Lower School Forum’, much as in present ‘Pupil Voice’ practice. However, every KS3 form also had a KS4 member of the School Council ‘attached’ for registration and form meetings to assist in the organisation of discussions, the resolution of bullying and disputes, and to take any KS3 issues for formal discussion at a KS4 School Council meeting.

The KS4 School Council was also based on ‘form elections’, but the ‘leadership team’ comprising the two joint Chairs of School Council (a boy and a girl) and their deputies were elected annually on a one person one vote system in which the electorate comprised all KS4 students together with every adult employee of the school, including teachers and all non-teaching staff, science and technology technicians, Site Manager, office staff,  catering staff and cleaners, all of whom were directly employed by the school. The only senior staff involvement was support for the process from the Deputy Headteacher.

These elections involved candidate statements and ‘electioneering’. The ‘deputy’ posts were filled by the candidates with the next highest numbers of votes. The School Council officers and elected members undertook training and adopted their own significant responsibilities in relation to the ‘Anti bullying policy’. They also attended Governor’s sub-committee meetings along with non-governor parents who were active members of the School Association (PTA).

Our School Council, with the support of LEA staff in the Area Education Office (long gone and demolished), set up and led the ‘Barrow Youth Forum’, which drew in students from the other secondary schools in the town and was supported by the County Council Youth Service (also long gone) and local Borough and County Councillors. Strong support was given by the most senior Police Officers based in the nearby Police HQ. A designated experienced police officer liaised with our School Council and was a regular visitor to the school recognised, respected and chatted to by students of all ages.

School Council Training was in-depth and included an annual residential weekend using the conference and dining facilities at a prestigious four star hotel in nearby Grange-over-Sands, alongside corporate and other guests. The costs of this were subsidised by the hotel, whose manager strongly supported our school.

Those elected to the Chair and Deputy Chair positions increasingly came to be our brightest and most able students rather than the ‘peer group leaders’ that might have been more popular before the School Council was established. Of the total electorate, up to 300 were KS4 students, far outnumbering all the adults, making it obvious that these posts were not filled by ‘trusties’ chosen by the head, nor did they have any ‘prefect style’ pupil supervision status or roles. Our students were increasingly voting for their studious, responsible, confident and articulate peers, who consequently drifted to the top of the informal girls’ and boys’ peer group hierarchies. To gain acceptance within their social groups it increasingly became necessary to become, at least to a degree, studious, responsible, confident and articulate themselves. By such means a great many unlikely personality transitions came about.

In contrast the ‘Head Boy’, chosen by the Headmaster in the selective boy’s school that I attended, was a figure of derision, along with the tassle on his school cap and the bands (denoting rank) on the cuffs of his blazer, which could only be obtained from the poshest school uniform shop in Birmingham.

Our School Council Officers and others became increasingly impressive gaining rhetorical and organisational skills in organising and participating in formal meetings within and outside the school. It will have been previously noted that the average intake CATs score to our Y7 never rose above 85 (-1SD, 16th percentile) but our School Council officers increasingly came to comprise our most able minority, with high CATs scores, without any intervention on the part of the head or any other teacher.

The local Rotary Club ran a number of inter-school competitions including a ‘public speaking competition’ and a ‘University Challenge’ type quiz, each needing teams of students. Supported also by our broad and balanced KS4 curriculum, our teams often won these competitions, much to the annoyance of the schools in the posher parts of the town. A consequence was that the ‘highest status’ girls in our school became increasingly socially aware rejecting any suggestion of dishonest, violent or criminal conduct, as were the vast majority of our pupils, most of whom lived in some of the poorest electoral wards in England.

This contrasts with the knife crime culture that is the subject of this article. I am arguing that such cultures are sustained because their male peer group leaders can attract high status girls through their violence and consequent ability to offer ‘protection’, thus leading to my suggestion that educating girls so as to change their ‘boyfriend choice’ criteria is far more likely to bring about the desired culture change than inviting the boys to render themselves ‘defenceless’ within their own peer hierarchy, in the absence of  any ‘payback’ in terms of high status girl ‘pulling power’.

I am reminded of the lyrics of this version of the song, ‘Frankie and Johnny’.

Frankie and Johnnie were lovers,
Lordy, how they could love,
They swore to be true to each other,
True as the stars above;
He was her man, but he was doing her wrong


Part 2  ‘Wen’ and ‘Wu’

What if any violent culture that first transitioned from ‘memes’ to ‘genes’, is reversible?

This is rather more speculative. Once again you will need to read a long article first. The following is from the conclusion.

‘Wen’ and ‘Wu’ in Chinese culture

In ‘The Peone Pavilion’ folk tale, I was struck by the description of Liu Mengmei, the object of the young woman’s desire. Unlike the dashing male heroes of Western folk tales, Lui Mengmei was a quiet, physically unprepossessing studious type – a bit of a nerd in fact. Given that this story is commonly regarded as the Chinese equivalent of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, I found this interesting to the point of researching sociological treatises on the culture of Chinese masculinity.

I found that the Chinese memes for male sexual attractiveness underwent major changes around the time that ‘The Peone Pavillion’ was written. Since ancient times it had followed the Western, dashing warrior (wu) stereotype. Historical records show that the ‘wu’ spirit lingered in Chinese society until the early Qing (1644AD-1912AD) dynasty, and was recognized as late as the Ming dynasty (1368AD-1644AD). The following description is from a book by H.R. van Gulik, entitled Sexual Life in Ancient China. At the time Ming athletics were still admired, young students practised boxing, fencing and archery, and riding and hunting were favourite pastimes. Thus bodily strength was one of the recognized attributes of a handsome man. They are depicted as tall and broad shouldered. The male nudes of the erotic albums of the time depict heavy chests and muscular limbs. The decline of ‘wu’ reached its nadir during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912AD) to be superseded by ‘wen’. Ardent lovers became depicted as younger men without beard, moustache or whiskers. The ideal lover is describe as a delicate, hyper-sensitive youngster with pale face and narrow shoulders, passing the greater part of his time dreaming among his books. Thus ‘wen’ (geeky) masculinity has prevailed for many centuries as the dominant masculine sexually desirable to women meme in Chinese society and is the underlying cultural assumption of ‘The Peone Pavilion’, which given its continuing universal popularity, suggests that this remains the case.

Further evidence that this is so comes from the current status of (usually young male) private maths tutors in the Chinese education system. These individuals are apparently the celebrity objects of desire of female students. David Beckham and other male A List UK and US celebrities would appear not to stir the desires of Chinese females as much as geeky young mathematicians.

So there we have it. The fact of high Chinese intelligence could be down to the overriding influence of the ‘wen’ masculinity meme in Chinese society as healthy, dominant females have expressed their sexual preferences for the most intelligent male (wen) stereotypes so disseminating the ‘wen’-fancying meme. Is this the culture of the average UK  comprehensive school or indeed UK society in general? I don’t think so.

How to promote the ‘wen’ meme in a low attaining UK comprehensive school

I have previously described how this can be achieved through proper School Councils (not the shallow ‘pupil voice’ model promoted by the government). It certainly began to work at my headship school in Barrow-in-Furness. Our 16th percentile average CATs score intake began to produce an explosion of A/A* grades at GCSE, ‘top 5 in England’ exam performance in a number of GCSE subjects and many former students progressing to top universities and careers in Law, Nuclear Engineering and Patient Safety in the NHS, to name but a few. I recall in particular, a mixed race boy with a troubled background who moved to Barrow from a tough part of Manchester with his single parent mother to enroll in our school. He is now a graduate science teacher specialising in physics.

However, such was the extreme abundance of very low CATs score pupils that significant, life enhancing cognitive ability gains across the school, were still not enough to lift the aggregated results above New Labour’s ‘good school by definition’ floor targets. The GCSE grade distribution peaked at ‘D’, which should have been cause for celebration, rather than OfSTED denigration after until Acadamisation became promoted by New Labour. The Alfred Barrow school was eventually closed in 2009,  six years after I retired, as part of a disastrous Academy reorganisation along with the two largest schools in the town.

Who knows, if only the educational lessons of our School Council had been learned, rather than bulldozed out of existence, Barrow-in-Furness could, in a few generations of ‘wen’ driven meme dissemination, have become a real Northern intellectual, cultural and technological UK Powerhouse instead of, like many other working class northern towns, remaining an example of ‘the attainment gap’, which Academisation or anything else fails to close.

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