The UK has a problem with knives: the number of fatal stabbings has reached a postwar high. In the year to March 2018, 285 people were stabbed to death – a remarkable leap from 212 in the previous year.
Britain is a land of happily few guns – and little murder. The total number of people killed in the UK (population: 66m) has been in the same ballpark in recent years as the city of Chicago (population: 2.7m). But that also means the number of knife attacks is of great significance for the overall murder rate.
This year, the rise in stabbing was overwhelmingly the reason for a rise in killing. Last year, non-terrorist murders claimed 704 lives, up from 610. A rise that is largely down to knife crime.
The pain is not being borne evenly: this is a blight on the inner-city young. A quarter of the victims are black British, a group that makes up less than 5 per cent of the population. Almost a third of the people being killed with knives have not yet turned 25.
Last week, we held a ThinkIn in a London further education college where we spoke to young people about the problem. We heard the stories of several stabbings, four of them fatal, from people who knew and loved the victims.
Many in the room had little regard for the police and no expectation that they could make a difference. But they wanted to talk about schools – and specifically exclusion (what was once called expulsion).
Their concern is a fair one: Ofsted, the education inspectorate in England, has expressed concerns that pupils who are excluded from school are twice as likely to carry a knife.
Gangs may, indeed, be pulling children from school so they can be put to work full-time. In London, Ofsted says: “Gangs are… getting children to take a knife into school or to break another rule which gets them excluded.”
This creates a dismal dilemma for head teachers in mainstream schools: we cannot expect them to put up with falling standards of behaviour or safety. It should be considered a success that British schools have remained safe. But what happens after the child is cast out?
The only way to cope with this is surely to allow tough exclusions policies for clear breaches of standards. But we also need to make sure there is the chance of a decent education for the excluded. That means good teaching, proper mental health provision and a route back to mainstream education. Heads must be able to expel who they need to without it being a life sentence for the pupil.
At the moment, being sent to a pupil referral unit (PRU) – schools for children who cannot be placed elsewhere – is a grim prospect; the life chances of those who are despatched into them is poor.
Some of these pupils may also end up in so-called “alternative provision” (AP) – unconventional schools for children not coping in a traditional setting.
These schools are outside most of the oversight mechanisms that keep the rest of the system on track. Across England, 59 per cent of children achieved the “good pass” benchmark of a grade 4 in English and Maths GCSEs. For children in AP, the figure is 4 per cent.
Taken altogether, across the English school system, these schools make up less than half a per cent of the system. But they will take a huge effort to fix. And we cannot will the ends and not the means. Giving these children a decent shake will be hard. It would require investing in some of the most complex plumbing of the British state.
It is one thing to have high expectations for vulnerable children. But you must spend money on getting them into school. That is no small task.
In addition to the children in PRUs and AP, England has a worrying number of missing children. Of the 553,000 pupils who reached the end of their secondary education in 2017, more than 22,000 had simply disappeared at some point between the age of 11 and 16.
It is not enough just to have high aspirations for children from hard backgrounds. You have to pay for social workers and other interventions that might be essential. Remember, too, these are children who will be sensitive to failures of mental health services, housing policy and the benefit system.
The fate of children lost to or excluded from mainstream education is a problem that needs political attention. We need levers to make these young people a focus for the school system at large and local authorities in particular.
There is a new charity, The Difference, that we are interested in, which is seeking to fix these issues by recruiting the best and brightest into these, the hardest of schools. We will look into the missing children, too.
The relationship between the school system and knife crime is complicated – and we are proposing a chronic solution to an acute problem. But fixing these tough little schools is a moral imperative. Making them work will require other parts of government to get a lot better. Another good reason to try to make them work.