In a four-part TV series, Ross Kemp is ‘living with’ people dealing with some of the biggest issues currently affecting Britain. Episode 3, broadcast on Thursday 8th August, explored the country’s knife crime epidemic. Shocking statistics were given to demonstrate the rise in knife crime across the country. There were 285 fatal stabbings in England and Wales last year, the highest number since records began, and the Met police force is currently dealing with 40 blade related offences every day.

Although knife crime is often associated with large cities such as London and with areas of social disadvantage, it is in fact growing fast outside of these areas, even in the suburbs. This is something that I became aware of when working with pupils at risk of exclusion within East Kent, when the brother of a pupil that I was working with was stabbed, fortunately not fatally. The impact of this event was wide reaching; for the individuals directly affected, their families, friends, teachers, and also for the community.

But what does Ross Kemp’s programme have to do with SLCN and why was I interested in watching it (other than because of my slightly unhealthy love of true crime)?

The link between SLCN and criminality is well established, with 50-80% of individuals demonstrating challenging behaviour, including young offenders, having significant SLCN. I was interested to see whether the link between knife crime and underlying SLCN would be made within Ross Kemp’s programme and although it wasn’t explicitly mentioned, you do not have to look hard to see it.

During the programme, Ross met with four young men in London who all currently carry knives. They had all left school early, not finishing full time education, and talked about being ‘kicked out’ of placements and labelled as a ‘bad kid’. They shared that once you have this label it is very difficult to get away from it and second chances are almost impossible to come by. When discussing how conflicts start, social media was mentioned, with arguments escalating in this public forum. With many of these young people having significant undiagnosed SLCN, it is easy to see how misunderstandings and difficulty expressing thoughts or emotions can escalate arguments, often resulting in physical altercations.

Exclusion at a young age can be very traumatic for young people, leaving them feeling that they have no choice but to leave education and, in many cases, take to the streets. The Timpson review of school exclusion in May 2019 found that in England an average of 40 pupils are permanently excluded every day and a further average of 2,000 pupils are excluded for a fixed period each day. Children with SEN are consistently more likely to be excluded from school. During the programme one young man shared how ‘crazy’ he thought it was that young people with the same types of difficulties end up being put into the same place (e.g. PRUs and ultimately prison) where their difficulties escalate. The main aim of permanent exclusion is often said to be to maintain the safety of the pupil and other pupils or staff, however there is an argument that increased exclusions are making society less safe, by putting many troubled young people on the streets in a time when knife crime is on the increase.

In response to the knife crime epidemic and general increase in violent crime, Boris Johnson has recently announced his plans to crack down on crime. He has committed to recruiting 20,000 frontline police officers over the next three years and extending police stop-and-search powers. On 11th August, he announced that the government would be investing £2.5 billion in creating 10,000 new prison places, to ensure that prisons have sufficient capacity to hold the additional offenders who will be caught, charged and sentenced. Although some of this money is also earmarked for prison modernisation (to provide better opportunities for criminals to reform) according to the prison service’s own figures, it would take 9,000 new prison spaces just to eliminate current overcrowding. So, this funding would have little or no impact on improving the state of the prison system.

As usual, there is no focus on prevention or working to support the underlying reasons that we know are resulting in so many young people becoming involved in knife crime; undiagnosed and untreated SLCN or reduced access to child services due to funding cuts. It is placing the emphasis of the problem onto the young person, but not on changing the system that doesn’t consider the wider issues impacting on them.

We know that there is a direct link between language and communication needs and criminality, but it is not enough just to know that the need is there. These young people need to be identified, so that their difficulties can be supported and without this, nothing is going to change Large numbers of young people with SLCN will continue to be excluded from school, then be at risk of offending and ending up in the hundreds of new prison cells that the government is all too keen to provide for them.

The areas of difficulty that children and young people with SLCN are likely to have mean that not only are they more at risk of becoming NEET and getting involved in criminality, it also means that they often cannot access the criminal justice system. They may have difficulty understanding vocabulary relating to time and therefore find it difficult to understand and meet any obligations or rules set. They may find it difficult to sequence their ideas and find the words to use to formulate responses and explain events from their point of view. They may also have poor understanding of non-literal language and hidden meaning, resulting in frequent misunderstandings and escalation of conflicts or them being vulnerable to exploitation. They are then more at risk of breaching the terms of their ‘language heavy’ sentences, ending up in a pattern of entrenched offending.

Rather than solely focusing on punishing behaviour, we need to always be looking for the underlying cause, which is likely to include undiagnosed SLCN.

So what can you do if you are concerned about a pupil’s behaviour or someone becoming involved in knife crime?

  • Always consider that challenging behaviour or criminality is likely to indicate an underlying SLCN. For any pupils that you are concerned about, complete a language screening and/or discuss with your Speech and Language Therapy service
  • Family, friends, teachers and other role models are important influences on young people and can have a powerful effect by simply listening and giving time to a young person. Finding out why young people are demonstrating certain behaviours, including carrying a knife, can help lead to a solution. Feeling like they have someone to listen to their story and the pressures that they are facing, can help to open discussions
  • Teach the consequences of knife crime, helping pupils to understand that carrying a knife is not the answer. The knife free website has developed knife crime PSHE lesson plans for young people in KS3 and KS4.
  • Help pupils understand the impact of their actions on others if they were caught with a knife or were injured themselves.

Useful links:

Knife free

The Timpson Review

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