Home Office statistics show that 40% of the young people brought before the courts following the August riots were on free school meals; more than a third had been recently excluded from school and two-thirds had a special educational need. Fewer than one in five of those arrested were gang-affiliated. The vast majority – 90% – were male.
These statistics chime with our findings on young people and neighbourhood risk. Although the London neighbourhood where our study took place was identified as a “hotspot” for gang activity, most of the young people we spoke to were highly critical of gangs and of youth crime and violence. What emerged from the discussions that my colleague Anna Conolly and I had with young people were the frequent dilemmas boys in their early teens faced in working out how to deal with the risks and dangers they encountered routinely in their neighbourhoods.
Boys felt pressured to appear tough, streetwise and resilient. But this bravado could sometimes lead them into dangerous behaviour, as boys tried to demonstrate to each other how they live up to tough masculine ideals. One 15-year-old told us: “I’d fight back. If they stabbed me, yeah? If someone’s running towards you with a knife, yeah, they’re thinking you’re going to run away, but my mind says, to run towards them, because you don’t – they don’t know what you’ve got on you.”
This concern about reputation was most marked in the boys at risk of exclusion or excluded from mainstream schools. One 13-year-old boy in a pupil referral unit, for example, told us how a friend “got robbed, and now he just gets bullied in school”. For him, fighting back was seen as necessary to evade the threat to reputation which could evoke further violence and exclusion within his peer group. For some boys tough talk could mask fears and anxieties about risks of the neighbourhood.
So what does this mean for the government’s plans for ending gang and youth violence? The government’s response to last summer’s riots and other instances of youth crime has been to set up panels of experts on Ending Gang and Youth Violence and on Riots, Communities and Victims. Their reports stress the need for multi-faceted interventions, but pay surprisingly little attention to these pressures on boys.
Our findings show firstly how important it is to take seriously the way particular ideas about masculinity influence the way boys think and behave. They show the need to develop sensitive interventions to help young people reflect on fears, pressures and safety strategies. Second, our findings show the importance of tackling school exclusion and under-achievement – though the After the Riots proposal to fine schools for failing to teach reading properly will surely only reduce the resources to improve teaching and learning in those schools. Rather than blaming teachers or parents, we need to learn from and build on the strategies teachers, youth workers, parents and young people already employ.
Finally, £10 million is being directed to 30 neighbourhoods deemed to be hotbeds of youth violence and gang activity. But beyond these few neighbourhoods it is hard to see how plans for prevention can be realised with the massive cuts to Sure Start and youth services? And if we are to tackle the pressures on young people, we need to make sure they can achieve their future aspirations with the provision of educational and employment opportunities. Too narrow a focus on gangs and the most visible forms of violence and disorder detracts from important issues around masculinity, exclusion, and poverty that emerge in the aftermath of the riots.
Jenny is Principal Investigator for ESRC study: Negotiating danger, risk and safety: An exploration with young people in an urban neighbourhood.