How do we solve the youth violence epidemic?

In the UK, the average life expectancy is 81. We recently asked a group of young people that we work with what they thought their life expectancy was, and they unanimously replied 21. The young people we work with fear that their lives will be cut short by knife crime or a prison sentence. Though this might sound shocking, we are confronted daily with news on the youth violence epidemic - open up the paper on any given day and you will read a story about another murder, a young person stabbed or shot in cold blood by their peers. Now, we need to focus on what action we can take to solve it.

In the wake of rising crime rates, politicians in Westminster have loudly condemned the current state of affairs and promised to find a solution. The Head of the Ambulance Service has even described the youth violence epidemic as a public health issue. This has led London Mayor Sadiq Khan to open up a number of grant schemes to charities and community organisations working at a grassroots level to continue working to solve this issue.

On 12 December, a roundtable discussion was hosted by The Prince’s Trust, HRH The Prince of Wales and HRH The Duke of Sussex at Clarence House. Guests, including rapper Tinie Tempah, actor Tom Hardy and England manager Gareth Southgate - as well as our very own CEO, Shaninga Marasha - discussed what can be done to tackle youth violent crime. This forum, which brought together voices from all different sectors, as well as victims of knife crime, is an example of the work we need to do to address this problem, and to formulate an effective action plan. This roundtable also bought attention to an issue that the general public are, sadly, becoming desensitised to.

At BIGKID we have developed our own solution to this youth crime epidemic. Our Breaking Barriers Programme is focussed on helping the young people most at risk of exclusion from school to remain in education.

We believe that there is a strong link between school expulsion and involvement in violent crime. Metropolitan police files show that half of all deaths involving knives in London are directly linked to the drugs trade and gang turf wars. Many other deaths are the result of the culture of violence that gang activity fosters. Young people have a higher rate of falling into these crowds if they are expelled from school; with little to nothing to do, and no provision to help them back into mainstream education, they are vulnerable to gangs.

The children that are being expelled are often those that are most vulnerable; those with Special Educational Needs, suffering from mental health issues, with substance misuse issues and exhibiting violent behaviour. These groups possess some of the factors that put them at higher risk of being exploited by gangs and those running the drug trade. All of these things are also signs that a young person is not safe, and that they might need more support. However, with funding cuts to the education system, schools don’t have the resources to offer these kids the extra support they need, and these kids often end up finding themselves outside of the mainstream school system.

Our Breaking Barriers Programme exists to give these young people the additional support that they need to remain in school, thereby reducing the risk of them becoming involved in gangs and criminal networks. The programme works by changing the participants’ perceptions of themselves; whereas everyone labels them the ‘bad kids,’ we remind them that they have the capacity to be leaders. The programme consists of 12 weeks of leadership training, which develops essential life skills. At the end of the programme, the young people then deliver a ‘Dragon’s Den’ style presentation to a panel to be awarded funding for a community event that they plan in their sessions, to benefit the whole school and that creates a legacy for participants.

This programme has proved effective, with the large majority of participants remaining in full-time education upon completion of the programme. This solution is an alternative to the Pupil Referral Unit (PRU), the current provision for young people expelled from mainstream schools. At PRUs, however, young people from rival gangs are thrown together in oversubscribed and understaffed classrooms where just 1% of pupils get five GCSEs. This is not to doubt the intentions of those behind the PRUs, but rather to point out the issues that arise when they become oversubscribed and underfunded. Moreover, while PRUs offer a cure, Breaking Barriers is a preventative solution.

Of course, there is always the issue of funding. However, the financial benefits of the Breaking Barriers Programme are clear. According to a 2007 report by New Philanthropy Capital “Misspent Youth: The costs of truancy and exclusion, a guide for donors and funders,” the average excluded child costs £63,851 to society. The Breaking Barriers Programme is much cheaper; the costs of keeping a young person in school are lower than the costs accrued by a young person who enters the criminal justice system.

What our young people need is a clearer pathway to a future not mired by a prison sentence – or worse – death.

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