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What Did You Eat For Breakfast? Developing A School Culture That Challenges Youth Violence


Today’s guest blogger is Steve Warner. Steve has a wealth of knowledge around schools and what needs to change within them. I am proud to say that Steve’s views are upheld in the places that I work, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Steve states that there are professionals still working with young people who do not recognise that all young people must now be considered at risk of county lines and youth violence. Reading Steve’s blog is like music to my ears. Someone, who just like me, just wants people to be singing from the same hymn sheet.

He ends his blog asking that people don’t make young people become another statistic…. Something I have been fighting for over many years.

I give you the epic and empowering…. Steve Warner

What Did You Eat For Breakfast?

Developing A School Culture That Challenges Youth Violence

Steve Warner (@swarnersmhs)

In an early, unpublished blog I wrote last year I began:

“County lines along with increased incidents of youth violence and knife crime have meant the blurring of lines of responsibility for many schools. These issues stem from within or even beyond the communities which schools serve.”

The ongoing escalation of these issues, and the subsequent evolution of our school response “Beyond The Gate”, has only strengthened my assertion that for many schools the lines remain somewhat blurred.

I have encountered, and applaud, Heads who recognise the important role that schools can play in early identification of, and intervention for, those most at risk.  However, all too often work  to raise awareness has been met with resistance and, at times, derision with comments such as “it’s not our job”; “we’re here to educate”; “you need to stay in your lane”; “leave it to the police”.

The reality is there are still a significant number of professionals working with young people on a daily basis who do not recognise that all young people must now be consider at risk and who remain oblivious to the threats and challenges facing youth people today by the issues of County Lines and youth violence. They do not recognise the threats to their community or are simply unwilling to accept these as their responsibility.

In a previously written educational blog, I highlighted that:

“the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield,  advocated that pupils should receive lessons as part of the national curriculum on how to avoid being targeted by gangs and older criminals, whilst the latest DFE statutory safeguarding guidance – Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) – references, for the first time that schools should be taking to identify potential “county lines” exploitation”

I can but hope that this, alongside future legislation, and frameworks, drives this issue on to every school agenda. And when I say on to agendas, I’m advocating a sustained, long term, holistic whole school response that needs to include students, staff, parents, the police, youth workers, health, social care, family support, offender support and other outside agencies and partners.

Within schools there needs to be more than a passing action hidden within a strategic document or one off “awareness” presentation – such ‘here today gone tomorrow’ approaches for many are merely a tick box exercise that may prompt short term discussion and raise short term awareness but fail to embed long term understanding and behaviour change. I would also ask if it was this easy wouldn’t we have cracked it by now?

What is needed is a fundamental cultural change within education that supports schools recognising those most at risk of youth violence, both as victims and perpetrators, and in supporting, educating, and safeguarding students from these risks.

What Did You Eat For Breakfast? Changing A School Culture

There is a well know quote from Peter Drucker;

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”

Strategy is about focus and actions; timescales and success criteria as set out and evidenced in plans. Culture is about people and communities; about how people act and what people say. Whilst strategy is important, and can influence and shape culture, its culture that has to change – both within society and, in reference to this blog, education and schools.

We have changed our school culture.

We never used to talk about youth violence. For us, like most schools, it was a topic best avoided. It wasn’t on our agenda. And we certainly didn’t want the label “the school with the gang problem” or the question “why they doing that… they must have children in gangs” that would surely have come our way had we dared addressed any such issue.

But then, for us, the landscape changed. Tragic events within the communities we serve began to impact on our school community. We, as a school, owed it to our students and our community – we saw it very much as our safeguarding duty of care…..

And now, in our school, it’s ok to talk about “youth violence”.

That is not to say that we have an issue in school, – to be very clear, we don’t.

But within the communities that we serve “youth violence” is commonplace and is the principle concern amongst young people. Yes these communities are plagued by “gangs” too, (which criminologist and urban youth specialist Craig Pinkney @realactionuk describes as a predominantly street based group of young people where violence is integral to their identity) but for most young people their principle fear is of falling victim.

So, in our school it’s also ok to talk about youth violence. It’s also ok to talk about what is going on in the community. It’s ok to talk about intimidation. It’s ok to talk about fear and vulnerability. It’s ok to talk about grooming and exploitation. It’s ok to talk about trauma. It’s ok to talk about drugs. It’s ok to talk about the “k” word – knives. It’s ok to talk about drill. It’s ok to talk about social media. It’s ok to talk about the societal pressures of growing up today……. It’s ok to talk about the normalisation and desensitisation of these issues.

What’s not ok is to bring knives in to school. To bring in drugs. To threaten. To exploit. To deal. To intimidate. To bully. To coerce. To stereotype. To groom. To accept any of these as acceptable.

These issues aren’t glamorised or sensationalised – these are informed conversations to educate; to counter the media narrative; to reassure; to engage; to inspire; to motivate; to change; to inform. These are conversations to keep our students safe when they return from the safety and security of our school environment to the communities where they reside. These are conversations that may just help our students to break that cycle – to step away. These are conversations that may just prevent another stabbing; another fatality.

Our “Beyond The Gate” model is simple. It’s about understanding the causes not punishing the responses, whilst recognising that we are not the experts in the field and where there is an identified vulnerability, we work proactively to engage specialist support. We have invested in our best resource, our staff, so that they can understand the risk factors and spot the indicators to inform early identification of those most at risk – after all, they know our students; their families; their influencers; their behaviours and the communities we service; and they see our students for over 35 hours a week. What other agency has access like this? We have also invested heavily in breaking down the barriers and perceptions many young people have towards law enforcement and have developed supportive and trusting relationships and interactions between our students, our school, and our community police.

Across our school community we look for opportunities to raise awareness; we undertake what we refer to as ‘Safeguarding Through The Curriculum’ (a term I have borrowed, I think, from Carlene Firmin, Head of Contextual Safeguarding Network @carlenefirmin), reviewing the curriculum to raise awareness of how to reduce risk factors; we monitoring attendance & disengagement to identify ‘disclosure through behaviour’ (again a stolen term from Carlene I think!); whilst also aiming to raise the aspiration of every student.

For some there are more targeted interventions on topics such as drugs awareness; healthy relationships; staying safe; or positive choices; whilst we work collaboratively to offer diversionary activities and specialist interventions such as boxing, basketball or development of life skills, resilience or promotion of positive choices.

And for those most vulnerable we provide long term specialist mentoring – no short-term fix, but a long-term commitment. This provides relevant information to keep young people safe, informed and able make positive choices; builds their resilience to withstand the pressures of wanting to feel accepted; develops the counter narrative to todays glamorised and desensitised culture; and provides positive career exposure to incentivise, motivate and inspire young people.

And the impact of this…. soft impact data tells us our students are more informed and do know how to keep themselves safe. As to the wider society issues “beyond the gate”…. we can only hope that our students do have the information and understanding to support them daily in making those positive choices.

Although aimed at school leaders, but still highly applicable, Stephen Tiernary, Chair Heads Round Table, states “Culture matters most because people matter most; get the culture and they’ll get the job done and in the right way”

Our students matter. My plea to those in education – if you haven’t done so already, change your school culture and students too will “get the job done in the right way”. Trust in them, when empowered with the right knowledge and understanding to do this.  Don’t change your culture, and risk them becoming another statistic….

DMs welcome to @swarnersmhs for further information, resources and case study summary

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