Transcript of speech at the July Knife Crime conference
Prepared and delivered by Mr Daniel Connor BA (Hons) PGCE NPQH Principal, Challney Boys School
This conference has been organised because of a growing concern, across the country, about a perceived increase in young people, especially boys, becoming involved in violence and, particularly knife-crime. This is a concern that we have in schools and it is a concern, that you have as parents. Particularly if you are the parents of adolescent boys. I would like to challenge the perception that the 21st century is a particularly dangerous time for children to be growing up. Childhood must have been pretty grim, for example, through the mass destitution and child-labour of the nineteenth century. It must have been pretty grim growing up through the blitz or before the medical and social advances that we take for granted today, so it is important not to catastrophise the challenges we face today, but it is equally important to realise that there are real challenges and that many of them, driven by the internet and social media, are new and often not well enough understood by us adults. Invariably at school, and talking to my colleague head teachers across Luton they find the same in their schools, when we have to deal with incidents of serious conflict, violence, assault and, on occasion, knife-crime, the incident has been fuelled, organised and perpetuated through social media, and often, even caused in the first place by abusive behaviour on social media. As school teachers, parents and other adults responsible for keeping our young people safe, we need, urgently, to learn to understand social media and to learn how to control it and ensure our students, sons and daughters use it safely and responsibly.
I am a lot older than many of you, but when I think back to my own childhood, there were no mobile ‘phones and there was certainly no social media. We could only communicate with our friends at regulated times (at school, mediated by adults) and when out playing, maybe just an hour or two a day. Today, the vast majority of our children, from an increasingly early age, have smart ‘phones and, if we are not careful, they therefore have 24/7, unlimited, unregulated and unmediated social contact with, not just their friends, but a vast community of known, barely known and unknown other young people. A community constructed by children and adolescents; young people, who are still in the developmental stage of being able to forge productive relationships and don’t always yet have the language, the emotional maturity, the experience or the resilience to do so safely and positively without responsible adult guidance. There has developed a whole subculture, a virtual world which can thrive without responsible adults knowing anything about it. Within this world friendships are formed (often healthy, sometimes unhealthy), learning takes place (often wholesome, sometimes unwholesome), knowledge is gained (often useful, sometimes dangerous) enemies can be made and conflict can erupt; individuals in conflict with others are goaded and dared to take their “beef” to the next level and an army of spectators in a virtual auditorium can, and do, sit back and watch the drama unfold, often being dragged in to varying degrees. A crisis then ensues, a crisis caused when the virtual world collides with the real world, usually after an exchange on social media arranging for the protagonists to meet to “resolve their beef” in some park or on some street corner away from the curtilage of any responsible adult or authority. In, thankfully very rare, circumstances, one or both of the protagonists brings a knife, and “friends”, because they are afraid that the other protagonist may bring a knife, or “friends”. And, tragically, the potential is there for the worst to ensue. And throughout this chain of events (possibly stretching over weeks), no parent, no teacher, no youth worker, no police officer, no relative nor family friend, no neighbour had any inkling of what was unfolding.
You will have noted that I used the phrase “responsible adult” a number of times in this description. Now throw into this melee irresponsible adults. Because this, also, is becoming an increasing reality. Adults who DO understand the media and the dynamics of it, adults who are looking to recruit young people to their gangs that can traffic and sell drugs out of London along their county lines, or adults that would groom young people to radicalise them or, indeed, for other unspeakably sinister purposes such as sexual exploitation. Irresponsible adults who can lurk in the shadows of this virtual world, waiting to “pick off” the vulnerable, the confused, the disaffected, the angry, the lonely, the bored, the hurt or the unloved child, and we begin to understand the enormity of the challenge that is presented to us by the exponential development of modern communication technology, PARTICULARLY, in the context of some individual young people who may not have a secure, loving and safe “real” world to moderate the attraction of the virtual.
Often at school, we have cause while dealing with some issue or other, to ask a boy to show us a communication trail on their phone, usually on the Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat platforms. It NEVER makes pretty reading. It is often quite disturbing to read the escalation of conflict or to understand the levels of racist, homophobic, sexualised or just plain foul language that young people who are still in the process of developing their understanding of propriety and boundary are capable of using when unsupervised.
I’m conscious that I have painted a pretty bleak and alarming picture here and we are certainly right to think about these issues urgently and seriously, but let’s try and move on from despair to hope. The overwhelming majority of young people, despite the dangers I have just outlined, do not get involved in knife-crime or other forms of extreme violence and aggression. So maybe, rather than looking at why some boys (and it is almost exclusively boys) do, we should be looking at why so many boys don’t and how we can strengthen and replicate those protective factors to keep far more of our boys and young men safe.
We could spend time talking about government policy, policing, the availability of knives, gangs, unemployment, etc. But if we are really, really serious about making a profound difference for our children and protecting them from knife-crime, we need to challenge ourselves, not external factors or the young people themselves. At school, there is a mantra that we use a lot when we are working with staff to improve what we do. Our mantra is, “When the adults change, everything changes.” In other words, recognising that it is our behaviour, our expectations, our modelling, our efforts to build strong and positive relationships with our students that will make the real difference and develop resilience in the young people. I challenge us to think hard about how we can use that same mantra to commit, in partnership, as teachers, as parents, as communities, as neighbours, as faith groups, as police officers, as youth workers, as neighbours to learn or improve those behaviours of ours that will make all the difference.
So which boys do not and would never be involved, either as the carriers and users of knives, as the participant victims of knives or even as the hapless victims of knives? These boys, and it’s the vast majority remember, are boys who feel happy every day. Boys who feel loved and feel valued. Boys who feel secure with a clear sense of identity and belonging and high self-esteem. Boys who have strong and positive role models to follow and, possibly most important of all, boys who sense that their parents, their teachers and other significant adults in their lives are emotionally present and available and there to care for them and protect them. It is our responsibility as teachers to do everything we can to make sure that every boy who enters our school and enters our classroom feels safe and happy to do so. That they will not fear being ridiculed or belittled, that they will be valued, that they will be protected from bullying and that they will be listened to. Of even more importance is that our children, at home, in their families and in their communities feel likewise loved, valued and cared for. Boys who grow up in that environment will invariably not be vulnerable to knives and violence and, better than that, will invariably go on to lead largely successful and fulfilled lives. If this evening is to be of any help to anyone, let me develop this further by trying to be very specific, practical and pragmatic about what I mean by the behaviours that all of us, as adults, MUST get better at if we are going to keep our children safe.
So, whether as actual parents, or in the case of teachers and other significant adults, as loco in parentis, we need to bring our parenting to the forefront of our consciousness. Indeed, as a society, collectively, we need to rediscover active parenting. This is not a judgement on individual parents, so many of whom are superb, loving, caring, intelligent, strong parents, but as a society I would suggest, we do not have a common awareness of this or a common commitment to supporting parenting across society.
We need actively to involve ourselves in our children’s use of social media and technology. We need to bring them up from an early age to understand that we will regulate and monitor their engagement with phones and computers. Do I know what my son is doing on his phone in his bedroom? Do I know how to check? Do I ask him, talk to him about what he is doing, explore with him positive ways of using technology? Do I set up our own, family social media accounts where we can communicate positively and use the media to our benefit? Do we support schools when they ask us to make sure children leave their smartphones at home so that they don’t become a distraction from learning at school, or a platform for ill-disciplined behaviour? In other words, do we, as parents, as teachers, actively and consciously involve ourselves in this increasingly influential part of our children’s lives? Are we claiming back the territory, are we claiming our children (like we do when they are first born) making sure that it is us, as parents, as teachers as other significant adults that are the primary and positive influence on our children’s lives rather than unknown forces on social media.
We need to understand what it really means to be emotionally present and available for our children and for them to feel our presence all the time. We need them to know that we are there, looking after them, noticing, listening, caring, keeping them safe, holding them in mind. And with boys, with young men, fathers have a critical role in this. As men in society, we need to challenge ourselves like never before. What kind of men are we? What values are we modelling for our sons? Do we tell our sons to be tough and to stand up for themselves and to learn how to handle themselves in a fight? Or do we teach them about forgiveness and empathy and kindness and generosity and loyalty? How involved are we in parenting our sons? How do we make sure we are not absent from their lives, even when we are? We may work long shifts, we may go abroad or travel on business for long periods. We may feel that we are looking after and providing for our sons materially, but are we doing so emotionally? If I’m on the night shift, Do I message my son at eight in the morning asking if he’s got everything ready for school, eaten a good breakfast, wishing him well and telling him that I love him? If I’m away, do I message him or ‘phone him at 4 p.m. to welcome him home, ask him how his day has been and check that he knows what homework he has. Do I message him again at 8 p.m. to make sure he is in, that he has done his homework and that he is getting ready for bed. If I’m not at work, do I prepare his pack lunch for him or do I leave that to his Mum? And when I do prepare his pack lunch for him, do I slip a little note inside that he will find when he opens it, letting him know that I am thinking of him. This is conscious, active parenting. This is holding our child in mind. In the evenings, do we sit together as a family to eat, to talk, to read together or, if we have a faith, to pray together? Do we take our son’s shopping? Go to the football together, making sure that there is not a gap in his life that may otherwise be filled by his peer group or worse. Do we do these things, even when he is a teenager and resists it because, even if he doesn’t know it himself, our son really, really values quality time with his Dad? In fact, evidence indicates that adolescents are as vulnerable as new-born babies and, counterintuitively, rather than becoming more independent they need guidance and parenting that is as intense as they did as newborns. Do you remember when your new-born baby was screaming interminably and you were exhausted and didn’t know what he needed and you were at the point of despair? But you didn’t shake him and abandoned him, you cuddled him and held him to you with unconditional love and positive regard. Teenagers have the same level of vulnerability and we need to respond with the same patience, love and positive regard. This is hard, and your sixteen-year-old son may have strong views about being cuddled by his Dad! But calm, non-judgemental, unqualified reassurance that, whatever his behaviour, you love him and care for him is the same thing. Some teenagers will DEMAND our attention through outrageous or highly emotional, or even overtly exemplary behaviour. Others will not demand, but it is ESSENTIAL that we understand that those boys who do not demand need it just as much.
Do we make sure that we use the right meta language with our sons? Do we catch them doing right, praise them for what they do well rather than criticise them for what they do wrong? And how do we reward them? Do we take the easy route of rewarding them materially with new trainers, a new ‘phone or whatever, or do we do it the slightly harder way, through our behaviour and language? The latter, as we all know, has much more lasting impact. Has society forgotten how to be great fathers and does society portray a twisted view of what being a real man means?
We need, friends (and again, I feel this is societal) to renew the covenant between school and home. Schools need to get better at involving, including and listening to parents to build up their trust and confidence so that, in turn, parents feel able to support and work in partnership with the school. And a pivotal part of this covenant needs to be school and parents working together to propagate aspiration and ambition in our children. Boys who have a very clear sense of what they want to achieve in life, where and who they belong to, who cares for them and who understands them, will not get involved i
n knife crime. We need, in short, as schools, as community organisations, as neighbours, as a society, to rediscover an unconditional positive regard for our children and young people and as parents, an unconditional love for them. It is within our power, not the government’s or the police force’s or social services, to mitigate against knife crime and I truly believe that if we can find ways as individuals, as communities and as a society to learn again how actively and consciously to parent our children from the day they are born, and through their adolescence, we will continue to keep them safe.