Last reviewed 3 June 2019

There is growing concern about knife crime and the possession of knives on school property. A recent Ofsted report has looked at the issue in London. Suzanne O’Connell reports on what they found and where schools might go from here.

A total of 285 knife-related deaths were recorded in the year ending March 2018, including a 77% increase in incidents by under 18s. The number of sharp instruments found on school property increased from 269 in 2013/14 to 363 in 2017/18. These are just the ones we know about.

A number of reasons have been given for the increase. Reduction in policing, budgets withdrawn from youth services, a rise in poverty and deprivation in some communities have all been blamed for what Theresa May described as an infectious disease. The finger has been pointed at schools too, with the link being made between knife crime and school exclusion.

Not all of those carrying knives have the intention of harming others. There is evidence to suggest that some young people carry one as a deterrent. Many of those involved in knife crime have special needs and are vulnerable in other ways too such as having experienced poverty, abuse or neglect.

Safeguarding Children and Young People in Education from Knife Crime is a report published by Ofsted. The report includes findings and recommendations from a research project carried out in 29 schools, colleges and pupil referral units in London. By drawing on existing school practices and opinions it provides an interesting stimulus for debate.

The law

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.

There has recently been some discussion about creating a statutory public health duty in relation to reporting knife crime. This would require those on the frontline such as nurses and teachers to report anyone they believe to be at risk of being drawn into knife crime. However, some people believe that giving practitioners this role creates barriers that place young people in more danger.

Permanent exclusion

Some schools featured in Ofsted’s report Safeguarding Children and Young People in Education from Knife Crime permanently exclude or put a managed move into operation automatically. Others take individual circumstances into consideration. There is the suggestion that gangs may even bring on exclusion by encouraging those gang members they’re nurturing to take a knife into school.

Exclusion and knife crime are inextricably linked. Some exclusions are triggered automatically because of a zero tolerance to bringing knives onto the school premises. In other cases, student exclusion provides opportunity for gangs to groom new members and introduce them to their world.

Whichever comes first, pupil exclusion can provide the fodder for those who recognise the recruitment opportunities. Young people out of school and with little hope of a return to mainstream education are particularly vulnerable. This is the kind of environment where gangs and their associated crimes can thrive.


Ofsted reports that schools have adopted very different policies on the issue of searching students for knives. There are examples of almost everything on the spectrum from searching pupils multiple times a day to no routine searches at all.

Some schools only react to information and target individuals who they are told are carrying a weapon. Others operate random searches of different duration such as termly, fortnightly or even weekly. Some schools use wands or knife arches, particularly when it’s a routine search on the way into school. Where schools were reluctant to do this, it was sometimes because parents might think there was a problem there.

Reporting to the police

Not all schools necessarily reported possession of a knife to the police. Some schools interviewed by Ofsted took into account other factors when deciding what steps to take next. These included:

  • whether the child is vulnerable

  • whether it was a first offence

  • the history of the child’s behaviour more generally

  • whether the child was thought to be, or known to be, affiliated to a gang

  • the reason for the child carrying a knife — was it for protection or with the intention of harming someone

  • whether the child was looked after or not

  • whether other children were aware that the knife had been brought into school

  • the nature of the weapon.

Some schools did not have a policy of automatically referring pupils because they are aware that a pupil is more likely to be criminalised.

Through the curriculum

Schools recognise the importance of involving the curriculum in helping pupils to understand the issues. Ofsted found that schools address knife crime in the core subjects as well as through drama productions, case studies, assemblies and tutorials. Although some schools involve external speakers this can have mixed success depending on their communication skills.

It isn’t just a case of tackling the subject directly. Developing resilience, self-esteem and ways of resolving conflict can all support students who may be vulnerable. A mixture of universal, targeted or specialist interventions should be considered.

School action

What is clear from Ofsted’s report is that there is a lack of any co-ordinated and consistent approach. Many schools feel out on their own when it comes to deciding on their policy and are very conscious of the competitive environment that they are working in. The image of the school when it comes to parents is an issue for them and Ofsted’s report suggests that this is influencing decisions more than perhaps it should.

In the absence of clear direction, schools might begin by reviewing current policies and procedures, particularly in relation to screening and searching, behaviour and exclusions. Schools should feel confident in the approach they decide upon and ensure that this is communicated to teachers, students, parents and the local community.

Where possible, schools should aim to work closely with other agencies and seek advice on the local situation and what is recommended. School staff should know what is available and where students might be signposted to if they need help. The school should also have its own pastoral support network that can be involved where the need is identified.

Curriculum leaders should look at how issues to do with aggression, exploitation, relationships and gangs can be included in the curriculum. Ideally, this should not be a tag on unit but an area for discussion to which students can return at intervals.

Schools should look at the issue of staff, students and parental awareness, and how each of these groups can be informed and equipped with their own guide for what to do next. Leadership should be clear about the school’s approach and make sure that staff are trained and kept informed too.

The challenge is to ensure a safe environment for students with clear standards and boundaries that does not create alarm or raise barriers within the school community.

Time for a more united response?

Moving a troubled child from one setting to another will not necessarily address the issue. There is a sense that schools are circulating those who don’t fit in to the point where they disappear altogether and often into the hands of these who do not have their best interests at heart.

It is expected that in the new Ofsted framework, inspectors will look closely at the number of exclusions and managed moves. There is a swell of opinion calling for a more ethical approach to the way vulnerable students are included. However, perhaps what is needed most of all is more guidance, shared strategies and a united front to tackle this growing problem.

  • Review school policies such as screening and searching, and behaviour.

  • Review the ways in which the curriculum addresses the issue.

  • Check on available services, agencies and support.

  • Consider how pastoral support works within the school.