Joining together with a group of friends is a normal part of growing up, and in the playground being part of a ‘gang’ can be common. But real gang involvement, although rare in many areas and more prevalent in inner cities, is very different and is an important risk factor.
Primary schools are increasingly seen as places where early signs of gang involvement might be noticed and where important work can be done to prevent children getting involved or stuck in negative patterns of behaviour and peer associations.
What is a gang?
Gangs are typically described as ‘structured, street-based groups who engage in criminal activity and conflict with other groups’. There are reports in some cities of primary school-aged children being groomed by older gang members to become involved in local gang activity in return for affection, status, money or other rewards.
As well as being a major safeguarding concern, gang involvement is highly likely to indicate poor child wellbeing.
If gangs are active in your school area, then preventative activity will require a whole-school and community approach to tackle it and keep children and young people safe.
If you are at all concerned about a child’s safety or wellbeing please follow your usual safeguarding procedures and consult your designated safeguarding lead (DSL).
Spotting the signs
Gang involvement should always be taken seriously. A number of factors have been associated with a child’s increased chances of involvement in gang activity including:
- Early-starting behavioural problems and (in girls particularly) low self-esteem.
- Poor attendance including patterns of running away and truancy.
- Family risk factors (such as violence in the home, maltreatment etc.).
- Low academic achievement in primary school.
- Having a learning disability or difficulty.
- Living in a neighbourhood where higher numbers of young people are involved in illegal activity or where there is higher drug availability/use.
- A sense of hopelessness about the future because of limited educational or financial opportunity.
- Too little adult supervision.
- Having a sibling or relative involved in gang crime or behaviour.
These risk factors make it more likely that involvement in gangs or violence may occur, but it doesn’t mean it definitely will. As with other risks, the more they multiply, the greater the chances.
Vulnerable children can be helped through early action and support:
- to develop and support their coping skills, and
- by working with peers, families and communities to reduce risks and build protective strengths in the child’s environment.
What schools can do
Schools have an important early intervention role in violence prevention and gang involvement. Guidance indicates that effective action requires a combination of activity to build resilience in all children, targeted help for some children and more intensive support for those with the highest needs. For example:
- Some whole-school programmes will help improve all children’s social and emotional skills and their understanding of risk and help them explore how to stay safe, e.g.:
- Having a school ethos where children feel safe and secure and where there are clear expectations and boundaries.
- Positive relationships in the classroom/school built on trust, kindness, safety and security promote pupil wellbeing and school belonging and can provide the benefit of a strong, healthy relationship with an adult.
- Staff should be alert to changes in children’s behaviour and to indicators of distress and need – such as a lack of engagement with staff and challenging or risk-taking behaviours.
- A number of PSHE lessons can play a preventative role in helping children – with key learning reinforced more broadly across the curriculum:
- Learning how to resolve conflict effectively. See, for example, the ‘getting on and falling out’ lesson plan.
- Keeping themselves safe and maintaining healthy relationships. See, for example, the ‘expect respect’ lesson plans and toolkit.
- Increasing self-esteem (particularly important for girls). See, for example, ‘getting to know me’.
Protective factors: what schools can do
More information about how schools can play a role in violence prevention and gang involvement.
- Schools may need to support pupils to understand the differences between gang and group membership. They may need to highlight the distinguishing features of gangs – e.g. being involved in abusive, anti-social behaviour; committing offences or violence together as a group. Pupils may need help thinking through what is and what isn't acceptable behaviour in friendship groups.
- Schools should work collaboratively with families of children at risk as early as possible, problem-solving how to respond to and support children (and their younger siblings) effectively.
- See our guide about how to start a conversation with parents/carers.
- Parenting programmes can help families stabilise their children’s behaviour. See for example:
- Schools should have effective methods of dealing with bullying and aggressive behaviours and their underlying causes.
- Schools should link with local partners to assess the extent of gang-related activity in their area and work together to prevent anti-social behaviour and understand pathways for early support.