Angela, a head of department at a secondary school in South London has been a teacher for 28 years. She told the BBC “It’s not a shock anymore. It’s not a surprise anymore, if something happens in the area, you hope it’s not somebody you’ve taught.”
Last year one of her former pupil’s was stabbed to death. The killers included another former pupil, who’s younger sibling was till at the school.
“I taught them. I knew them,” says Angela. “It’s the worst feeling. It’s horrible. They’re not the typical cliché kids you know, in a hoody, wearing a mask. They’re the same students I taught who got their GCSEs.”
The incident did not change the atmosphere in the school. “They already know somebody who had been stabbed,” she says. “They know brothers, sisters, people they know who’ve been stabbed or are involved in gangs. It’s part of them. It’s where they live. It’s really part of their culture now.
“And that’s all colours, creeds and ages I would say,” she adds.
Angela says the murder case was high profile and the people involved became “sort of stars” locally. But many stabbings do not result in deaths and “are not public, not big court cases or anything”.
She says she knows pupils as young as 11 who carry knives out of fear. They believe a knife hidden in their own jacket will give them some protection on the streets.
By their mid-teens, carrying a knife is “part of the ‘I’m part of the gang culture'”. “They’re not scared. It’s something they are so used to, they’re actually not scared,” Angela says.
Abdul Chaudhury a Maths teacher and a branch secretary for the National Education Union’s Tower Hamlets branch supports staff at the local pupil referral unit for pupils who cannot cope with mainstream school.
Pupils are smart enough to know if they attempt to bring knives into the unit they will be confiscated. So staff routinely search for knives in drains and bushes where pupils have hid them.
“Who would imagine that a teacher would have as part of their job, walking around the school building picking up knives?” he asks.
He says knife carrying has become normalised among certain groups of teenagers and the rest of the community are resigned to it.
In the past, he says, people would report individuals carrying knives to the police – but these days there is no point.
“There’s no expectation something’s going to be done about it,” Mr Chaudhury says.
Primary teacher, Richard, from East London says it’s no longer possible to explain away stabbings or terror attacks as “one offs”.
Last year a parent at his school died after being punched on the street, with a devastating effect on the community.
“When friends and family are the people who have been involved and have been hurt, it’s a challenge as a teacher to explain that to children,” says Richard.
Lack of communication skills are the root of much street violence according to Angela. “It’s like they’ve lost the ability to actually speak to another person and air their grievance,” she says.
The first reaction to a problem is too often “a knife or a fist.” Some think about it for 30 seconds and might start arguing.”
“I call it peacocking around you know, but after that, the knife will be coming out.”
South London Science teacher and a National Education Union vice-president, Kim Knappett, also agrees better communication skills are key.
“I think we’re very used to seeing toddlers have temper tantrums because they don’t have the language to communicate what they want.” “I sometimes think our young people feel they don’t have the language, or don’t feel that we would understand their language if they tried to explain how they feel, what’s frustrating them, what pressures they’re under,” she adds.
But she argues that lessons these days are so tightly packed there is little time for discussion, while personal, social and health education “has been squashed.”
An ideal solution would be to have more money for the “really excellent external providers” who bring ex-gang members into schools to talk to young people their real life experiences. “A young guy coming in and saying I was in a gang and this is what happened and my mate got killed actually starts to break through to them,” says Ms Knappett.
Due to school budget cuts there’s not enough money for these groups and the pupils who need them miss out. Youth clubs are disappearing fast leaving many pupils nowhere to go after school, while too many teenagers leave school with few qualifications, and without a job, or the chance of further training.
Angela says, in an ideal world, schools would devote time and money to finding out what these teenagers need “to get out of this gang and this culture”. It is a matter of “giving these children hope.”
“They don’t see life beyond their area. There’s no hope and there isn’t any sort of progression. They are just in this cycle,” she argues.
She feels both pupils and teachers need more help, particularly when “something has happened, because it is going to happen again.”
April 13, 2018