Teachers and their unions have hit out at a government plan to give schools a legal duty to “spot warning signs” of violent crime, warning that the approach risks “scapegoating” school staff who are already under pressure.
Describing violent crime as “like a disease rotting our society”, Home Secretary Sajid Javid published a consultation paper on Monday morning stating that the government’s preferred option is a new reporting duty enshrined in law in England and Wales. This would require schools and NHS professionals to spot warning signs of future criminal behaviour. Watchdogs such as Ofsted would check whether public bodies are complying with the new duty.
Javid said: “The public health, multi-agency approach has a proven track record and I’m confident that making it a legal duty will help stop this senseless violence and create long-term change.”
The government’s paper says tackling youth crime is currently held back by “a lack or absence of important elements such as data sharing and intelligence”. It sets out revising cross-agency community safety partnerships as another option, but says the geographical reach of these bodies “might mean they are not the optimum partnership model”.
Gawain Little, a maths teacher and union rep at a school in Norwich, told the Big Issue: “Every school I have worked in has had robust safeguarding procedures that would already pick up the issues he has highlighted. The problem is the lack of support when they are identified.
“I have personally witnessed the decimation of youth services and family support services in the areas I have worked, at the same time as school funding is dramatically cut.
“There is only so much we can do within schools and, if external support is not available, then these young people are let down and our communities made less safe. If Sajid Javid was serious about reducing knife crime, he would be calling for the rebuilding of a national youth service, not talking about imposing legal duties on overworked teachers.”
Prime Minister Theresa May said the government wanted to introduce a “whole community – or ‘public health’ – approach” to identify young people at risk. Ministers will hold a series of meetings this week with police chiefs, youth charities and families affected by knife crime.
The public health rhetoric echoes the successful approach taken in Scotland, where the work of the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) has been hailed a model for tackling knife crime. Scotland has a separate education system to England and Wales, and there is no equivalent duty for reporting warning signs.
The VRU is not calling for such a system to be introduced. The specialist agency said it had not been invited to take part in this week’s summit.
Chris Keates, the general secretary of teachers’ union NASUWT, said: “It is concerning that a narrative appears to be developing whereby schools excluding pupils are potentially being scapegoated as being part of the problem, with exclusion being cited as a reason for pupils becoming involved in knife crime and gangs.”
She said managing pupils’ behaviour had “become increasingly difficult” thanks to “savage cuts” to school budgets and the closure of specialist units. And she warned it could create a “culture of defensive reporting” where the police and councils “may be overwhelmed by referrals”.
National Education Union co-leader Mary Bousted added: “Neither the blame for or the solution to violent crime can be laid at the door of schools or front-line hospital staff.”