‘It’s between us and gangs’: teachers are on the front line against youth violence


Gang violence and knife crime threaten the lives and future of young people. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that in London, knife crime increased by 22% in the year up to September 2023.

County line gangs have capitalised on reductions in youth services, such as cuts to funding for after school clubs, to recruit an increasing number of vulnerable young people to traffic drugs from cities into smaller towns and rural areas. Knife carrying is seen as a required form of protection against rival gangs.

In 2015, the British school inspectorate Ofsted published guidance for schools, making clear they have a role to play in addressing gang violence. Secondary schools have “a duty and a responsibility to protect their pupils”.

My recent research in an east London secondary school gives insight into the challenges that teachers are facing in addressing gang violence.

I worked with six teachers, holding individual interviews and a focus group discussion to discuss their experiences of dealing with gang membership. All of the teachers’ names have been anonymised.

It was clear to the teachers that some of their pupils were involved with gangs. Hamza noted that gangs were attracting children of an increasingly young age:
I’ve been here six years now, and I’ve seen in the last three or four years how it’s getting, you know, worse. At first you think, you know, sixteen, seventeen – seventeen is the peak offending age. And now we have kids who are in year nine, 14 years old, on the fringes or actively getting involved.

The teachers talked about how gangs filled the gaps left when children were by themselves. Rohan explained that many parents had several jobs and worked long hours to make ends meet. In the absence of parents or youth services, gangs could take advantage of vulnerable young people outside school:
So it’s … the concept is they have no parental control as soon as they leave us, and maybe their parents get back at six or seven. So they’ve got like a three-hour gap of where they’re chilling in the park, chilling in the road. And they have that … older boys have the opportunity with the boys. And they just get them in that way, say buy them trainers, buy them a top…

Another teacher, Ana, said that gangs offered vulnerable students a sense of belonging, as well as food or material goods. “It’s definitely a sense of community, and they’re like family, basically,” she said. “And so it’s like if they’re – if that’s the only person who’s kind of offering you that… sanctuary, well, immediately, that’s something desirable.”

Other studies confirm that gangs offer a sense of belonging and act as family systems.

Research shows that inequality, poverty, and lack of social and economic opportunities are risk factors for gang involvement. This challenges racialised depictions of gang violence in the British media, pointing instead to the socioeconomic roots of the issue.

Teachers’ work

The end of the school day was at a different time to other schools in the borough, so that students would not be leaving at the same time as potential rival gang members from different schools. Teachers acted as monitors at the school gates, and were also required to control violence during the school day. Hamza said:
You know, there was an incident … a child in my year group a few weeks ago. He’s involved in gangs. He had an issue with another boy in the school whose brother is in a rival gang. They had a bit of a fight. We tried to stop him. We restrained him.

In the focus group, teachers described themselves as “security guards” and “police officers”:
Ana: [We’re] psychologists, parents, police officers, security-

Hamza: Social workers-

Kate: Yeah, security guard … It’s quite suffocating, I find. It’s like, you never feel like you can go home and think, right, we did that, that’s sorted.

Hamza: It’s an unforgiving job.
Hamza felt that teachers were having to take on responsibilities that went far beyond their role as educators – and that they were stepping into a gap left by others. “It’s between us and gangs,” he said, talking of the choices young people were making in their teens.
It’s literally, we’re being told by the government to do all these things that, you know, we’re not trained for, we’re not paid for. And, you know, it’s not our job. But I see the government and the parents, kind of, you know, they take a bit of a backseat. And we’re put on the frontline along with the police…

Schools and teachers cannot address gang violence on their own – and they should not have to. Rather, whole communities should be involved in tackling youth violence, with the government support they need.

Author Bio: Emma Soye is a Researcher at Queen’s University Belfast