Free article: Exploring the issue of knife crime


Over the past few months, the issue of knife crime has once more hit the headlines. In this article, Suzanne O’Connell identifies some of the key issues for schools raised in Ofsted’s latest report.


  • Knife crime cannot be tackled by schools on their own.
  • Schools have adopted many different strategies for addressing the issue.
  • A consultation on a public health duty has been launched.

Theresa May and Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, recently compared knife crime to an infectious disease. Whether we agree with the comparison or not, knife crime does seem to be on the rise and of increasing concern to schools.  

The law surrounding the use of knives includes that:

  • it is an offence to threaten or cause harm to a person with a bladed weapon
  • it is an offence to carry a knife in a public place without good reason
  • some bladed weapons are prohibited from being sold or purchased, including to anyone under the age of 18
  • offences such as robbery or assault can be aggravated if a knife is involved.

‘Safeguarding children and young people in education from knife crime’ is a report published by Ofsted. The report includes the findings and recommendations from a research project carried out in 29 schools, colleges and pupil referral units (PRUs) in London.  The report emphasises that knife crime is not just an issue for schools but is a problem for society generally and one that requires a multi-agency response. 

Ofsted’s report highlights the difficulties that are preventing this. Local authorities are no longer in a position to respond across all settings and the voluntary and community sectors are existing on short-term, diminishing funding. Without effective external support, schools are struggling to find the capacity to deal with the problem.

Why do young people carry knives?

Ofsted identifies three groups of students who might be responsible for carrying knives:

  1. Those who are gang members and who are often victims of criminal exploitation.
  2. Children and young people who have witnessed others carrying knives, have been the victim of a knife crime and/or believe that knife-carrying is normal.
  3. Those who carry a knife to school as an isolated incident, e.g. a penknife to show others.

Behind these reasons is a high level of vulnerability. The majority of those involved have experienced poverty, abuse or neglect or are living with troubled families. Many of them are also low attainers academically.

“Ofsted recommends that schools should make students aware of the dangers of grooming.”

Should we search?

Ofsted’s report reveals vast differences in the approaches that schools are taking. These include:

  • no routine searches but instead reacting to information and targeting individuals
  • random searches – termly, fortnightly or weekly and involving knife arches, wands, bag searches or pat-downs
  • routine searches on the way into school, including through the use of wands and knife arches
  • searching pupils multiple times per day
  • perimeter searches of the surrounding area.

Where random searches are carried out, consent is given by the pupils individually at the point of search or agreed with pupils and parents through the behaviour policy. Advice about searches is included in the DfE’s publication ‘Searching, screening and confiscation at school’. 

Should we report?

Again, there is inconsistency in the way this is applied and, Ofsted points out, this could lead to some children being more likely to be criminalised. A common approach is recommended.

Schools have different policies when it comes to reporting knife crime. In many schools, bringing a knife onto the premises is not routinely reported to the police. Factors taken into consideration include:

  • whether the child is vulnerable
  • whether it is a first offence
  • the history of the child’s behaviour
  • the links a child might have with a gang
  • the reasons for carrying a knife
  • whether other children are aware of the knife or not
  • the nature of the weapon
  • the relationship of the school with the child and parents
  • the child’s prior attainment.

Should we exclude?

The report identifies two different approaches to the use of exclusion:

  1. Those schools that consider the circumstances and tend to let the child continue at the school.
  2. Those schools that adopt a zero-tolerance approach and immediately permanently exclude or put a managed move into operation.

It is pointed out that if a student is a risk in one school, they are also likely to be a risk in another. The issue is not solved by moving them. For those involved in gangs, it is to the gang’s advantage for the pupil to be excluded and may even be part of their grooming package. Once excluded, children have fewer protective factors.

Ofsted recommends that:

“All contributory factors as to why a child has carried a knife into school should be considered before they carry out an exclusion.”

In many cases this appears not to be happening and PRU headteachers spoke to Ofsted about the rising number of younger pupils, pupils with SEND and vulnerable girls being excluded. Ofsted recommends that the DfE collects data from schools about managed moves, as well as permanent and fixed-term exclusions.

Should we educate?

Alongside the targeted interventions are those that can be applied across the school as a whole to raise awareness.

Ofsted recommends that schools should make students aware of the dangers of grooming and criminal exploitation.

The PSHE curriculum is once more cited as the context in which knife crime and gang affiliation might be discussed. However, it can be a difficult subject for schools and some were aware that what they had on offer was probably insufficient to address the current issues.

Schools reported including it in their curriculum through:

  • the delivery of core subjects
  • using case studies and facts about knife crime
  • using drama productions
  • supporting regional campaigns against knife-carrying
  • assemblies and tutorials
  • involvement of external agencies.

Some schools reported success through involving ex-gang members talking to students about the impact it had had on their lives, and not just by going to prison. The problems they faced afterwards, including trying to get a mortgage or opening a bank account were shared. However, schools also reported vast differences in the quality of external speaker where this was the approach used.

“Ofsted is critical of what it sees as the ‘peacemeal’ way in which schools across London have adopted strategies.”


What is clear from the report is that a coherent strategy is needed that involves other agencies too. Ofsted is critical of what it sees as the ‘peacemeal’ way in which schools across London have adopted strategies and says, ‘Schools want to know what works’.

Schools need help and support with early intervention from other agencies. Accurate information needs to be shared that helps schools, colleges and PRUs to provide for the needs of the child. The provision of this can sometimes be incomplete because of concern that having all the facts might dissuade a setting from admitting the student.  

Concerns about reputation

A recurring theme in the report is the concern that schools and colleges can have about how their policy might look to others. For example, they worry that if they search pupils, this can be interpreted by parents as an indicator of problems in the school. 

The involvement of parents is also sometimes affected by a school’s image concerns. They do not want to alarm parents, particular where there is tough local competition. Some school leaders were prepared to admit that how they were perceived did have an impact on the decisions they made.

Ofsted suggests that some type of accreditation system for schools might help with this so that ‘schools see full engagement as a sign of strength and determination rather than an admission of being a “problem school.”’

Public health duty

The Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, has now announced a consultation on a statutory public health duty which would oblige police, hospitals, schools and other public bodies to report those at risk of being drawn into knife crime. This approach resembles the government’s Prevent programme which aims to identify and target children at risk.

There are concerns, however, about the implementation of ‘duties’ in this kind of way. Some argue that it can place distance and suspicion between students and those who might be in a position to help them. The counter argument is that the problem cannot be tackled by only reacting to incidents but prevention must be at the forefront of any strategy.

However, as Ofsted itself says:

“It is important to note that the issue of relative poverty is an important factor in knife crime among children and young people. The underlying socio-economic drivers behind knife crime cannot be ignored. Wider considerations of the lived experiences of children growing up in poverty, and, in particular, in areas with disorder problems, must form part of a multi-agency response to knife crime. This is no easy task.”

What is clear from Ofsted’s report is that many schools feel isolated in their bid to keep their students safe and educated about knife crime. An effective, robust and financed multi-agency approach is considered most likely to help bring this epidemic to a halt.

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About Author

Dr. Suzanne O'Connell

Dr Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance writer specialising in education. She is also the Managing Editor of Attendance Matters Magazine. Prior to this she taught for 23 years and was a headteacher of a junior school in Nuneaton for 11 years.

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