The stabbing to death by a 15-year-old pupil of Anne Maguire, a much loved teacher who had worked at Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds for more than 40 years, has attracted much attention across the media. This is because such tragic events are, thankfully, so very rare.
The last time a teacher was stabbed to death was almost 20 years ago when head teacher Philip Lawrence was killed outside his school in Maida Vale, London. Although some headlines have highlighted the risks to teachers, unions admitted that violence in schools had not increased over recent years.
The most impressive reaction to this incident was that of the teachers in the school. They dealt with restraining the boy, organised assistance from the emergency services and above all have kept the school open as normal.
It is too soon and the incident so inexplicable to gauge what the longer-term reaction will be. But it must not create a moral panic. Commentators are already making links with a report from Sky News last week which has done just that.
They ran an article with the headline 1,000 pupils caught with weapons in school along with a picture of dozens of knives. Or do what the Daily Mail did with the same story and print a stock picture of a young boy in a camouflage hoodie wielding a huge blade.
The story was reported everywhere. There was a ready audience for yet another headline suggesting that children are feral and dangerous. Safeguarding campaign groups were quick to say that “something must be done” to save our children.
Look at the numbers
A bit of perspective is needed on this issue. The Daily Mail claimed in its report on the Sky study that: “Two pupils a day are having weapons confiscated by police on school premises, including children as young as eight”.
What they neglected to point out was that there are about 8.2 million children in England’s schools. The other “shocker” that 80 primary school children had brought weapons to school was headlined without mentioning that there are about 4.3 million children in England’s primary schools.
The figure Sky News obtained was 981 children, not 1,000, but the rounded-up figure looks better in a headline. In fact only 329 pupils over a three-year period were charged with any criminal offence.
The other 652 children whose “weapons” were confiscated were presumably and sensibly told not to be silly and not to bring things like this in again. What is seen as a “weapon” is often problematic. All this seems to me to do away with the idea that weapons in school are a problem.
People realised that the figures don’t support a panic so we are told: “It’s just the tip of an iceberg!” Or we are told that there aren’t enough figures from the police forces and that teachers cover-up incidents of weapon-carrying to protect their reputations and school income. But even if you doubled or trebled these figures it still would not show that there is a problem.
Sky News researchers were frustrated because teachers were silent on the issue and no one would speak on camera. There are two reasons for this. First, it’s a very delicate topic. Some children have died in knife attacks and every incident is a huge tragedy for the family and for the school.
Talking common sense and trying to get any perspective on the issue might get you labelled insensitive or, worse still, get you accused of putting children at risk. Second, teachers know they are doing a good job at dealing with any incidents involving weapons. They deal with any issues quickly and sensibly because they know the children they teach day in and day out. Teachers’ apparent silence on the issues is a tribute to their professionalism.
Metal detectors aren’t the answer
What we don’t want is these moral panics about knife-carrying pupils to make our schools more like prisons than they already are with their high fences and air lock-style entrances. Metal detectors and armed security guards patrolling schools are not the way forward.
What we don’t need is overreaction. We need sensible debate and discussion amongst teachers. That there are so few discussions is the reason I am constantly asked to talk to the media about the issue. This is because I organised a lively Institute of Ideas’ Education Forum in 2008 on the topic of knife crime which was widely reported. 2008 was the year when there was another moral panic about knives in school in the context of a series of fatal stabbings outside school.
The teachers and parents at that discussion, under Chatham House rules, talked sensibly and openly about the issue and their concerns. One of which was that if you constantly hold “awareness raising” sessions about knife crime you can create a problem, not solve it.
Some of those 8.2 million children, most of whom have never thought it necessary to carry a weapon or anything that could be construed as one, might be made “aware” enough to think about carrying something to protect themselves with.
The message of that discussion was “leave these issues to the teachers”. Talking to some of those very same teachers and parents about the issue last week, their views had not changed. One mother told me: “By ‘awareness raising’ knives become something to fear or (if they are that way inclined) show-off about as part of a challenge to authority. Either way, creating this culture of fear among young people is not going to do them any good.”
On the same day as the Sky News reports, there was a report from academics at Cardiff University that there had been a 12% fall in injuries from violent incidents since 2013. The next day, the Crime Survey of England and Wales figures were released which showed that there were an estimated 7.5 million crimes in 2013. This was the lowest number since the survey began in 1981 and represented a 15% drop on 2012.
British society is getting safer and yet we have these moral panics about children. We need to stop worrying about making children “safe” by “raising awareness” about weapons, bullying, alcohol, obesity and a dozen other social problems and leave teachers to get on with teaching. I mean teaching their subjects. When this happens children will get a passion for knowledge that will make a real difference to their lives.