Gerard Lemos is a partner at Lemos & Crane and leads
its social research team. He has published books and reports on
social policy, on dealing with crime, particularly racially
motivated crime, and on supporting vulnerable people. He directs
RaceActionNet, a web-based action network for practitioners
tackling racist crime in the home and neighbourhood.
Media reports of knife crime among young people are increasing.
Probably the most notorious case was that of 10-year-old Damilola
Taylor, stabbed to death in November 2000 in Peckham, south London.
After an initial failed prosecution, three teenagers were charged
in January 2005 with killing him.
In another high-profile case 14-year-old Luke Walmsley died from a
single stab wound to the heart from a 15-year-old boy at his
school. The inquiry into his death in November 2003 noted the
school’s “culture of fighting” but not of bullying.
How big is the problem of knife crime and who is involved? Why do
they carry or use knives? And what can be done about it? The Bridge
House Trust, the grant-giving arm of the Corporation of London,
commissioned social research organisation Lemos & Crane to look
into the problem and find possible solutions.(1)
There have also been two other large surveys of young people
looking at the issue. Charity Communities That Care interviewed
14,000 students in secondary schools in 2002 for a Joseph Rowntree
Foundation study.(2) It found that one in 10 boys aged 11 and 12
reported having carried a knife or other weapon and 8 per cent said
they had attacked someone intending serious harm. By the age of 16
this figure rose to 24 per cent admitting to carrying knives and
other weapons and 19 per cent saying they had used them to attack
In the second survey Mori interviewed 4,963 young people aged 10-16
in 219 schools for the Youth Justice Board.(3) This found that 29
per cent of young people at school admitted they carried a knife.
Mori also surveyed 586 excluded pupils, again aged 10-16. In that
group 62 per cent admitted to carrying knives, more than double the
figure for pupils as a whole.
Although girls do carry knives, it is far more common among boys,
particularly those aged 15-16. Carrying knives is more common than
using them, and using them often, say more than three times, is
rare. But the problem of knives seems to be growing: arrests for
carrying knives are rising as is the number of knife wounds dealt
with in hospital. Indeed, the recently retired Metropolitan Police
commissioner, Sir John Stevens, pointed to the “knife culture” as a
big challenge for his successor, Sir Ian Blair.
Evidence as to whether violent television programmes and computer
games make young people more violent is inconclusive. Most young
people watch TV and play computer games but few are violent.
Nonetheless, some suggest that images of violence can, for some
young men particularly, contribute to the formation of a violent
adult identity and that may partly explain the appeal of weapons
during those formative years.
For a small group, knife culture is part of a wider culture of
violence with which they associate and to which they aspire. In
certain groups or gangs (distinguished by a name, a uniform, a
hierarchy and a code of rules) carrying or using a knife may bring
status and authority. In these two cultural senses – status and
identity formation – carrying knives may be a fashion among some
However, the principal motive is not fashion, but fear. A
practitioner who worked in a youth offending team told us: “Fear
outweighs aggression as a motivator. But the fact is knives are not
defensive weaponsÉthey’re attacking weapons.”
The fear of bullying and crime may lead young people to carry a
knife. Most parents whose children carry knives are unaware that
they do, but some know and encourage it in the misplaced belief
that it makes them safer. But in the heat of the moment young
people may use the weapon, or it may be taken and used against
them, even if they were carrying it for self-defence.
Unintentionally, the knife increases rather than reduces their
chance of becoming a victim of crime. And being a victim can lead
some to offending themselves.
So what can be done? Luke Walmsley’s parents have campaigned for
greater security in schools to prevent further attacks. Perhaps the
government is listening as it has announced that head teachers will
have powers to search pupils for knives.
In general, responses to this problem and services are patchy and,
in many places, non-existent. In east London, Newham youth
offending team (Yot) has undertaken one of the most proactive and
explicit initiatives since 2001. It launched a campaign to shock
teenagers into realising the risks associated with using a knife.
Posters went up to force home the message “Don’t arm your
A practitioner involved said: “These young people we work with are
bright and intelligent but they have incorrect information and are
carrying the weapons for defensive purposes. The fact is you can be
stabbed or shot and you will not be able to walk away and get
yourself into hospital.”
Some agencies have developed educational weapons awareness
programmes in schools and youth clubs covering the law on
possession and use of weapons and other dangers of carrying a
knife. Some, such as Greenwich and Lewisham Yots in south east
London, work with health agencies to draw attention to the risks of
Other agencies have pursued more general mentoring, conflict
resolution and gang reduction programmes that may not concentrate
on knives, but certainly mention it. Zero tolerance policies are
not the answer. By excluding the boys found with knives, they may
increase the risks for those already at risk. As one practitioner
said: “This is the very group of people we need to work with but we
also need to provide a place of safety.”
There are still many gaps, particularly for those at risk of this
kind of offending, or those who may be associated with offenders,
but not yet offenders themselves. Victim support for young victims
of crime is also an area in which policy, practice and provision
need to be developed.
The problem is not susceptible to a single solution pursued by a
single agency. Despite the alarmist headlines and inflammatory
speeches, law enforcement alone will not solve the problem. A
successful programme would need to have several strands:
- Awareness-raising with young people and the public through
- Formal and informal education activities.
- Diversionary activities.
- More explicit discussion of the problem.
- Encouraging reporting and reducing the fear of reprisal.
- Support for young people particularly at risk, such as those at
risk of exclusion from school.
- Direct work with young offenders.
- Awareness raising and skills development for teachers.
- Support for parents.
Bridge House Trust intends to fund exemplar projects. These will
be followed by detailed policies and practice recommendations that
will be widely disseminated. In this way a disturbing and growing
problem, which is too often greeted either by denial or hysteria,
is now being met with a proactive, measured, positive
This article looks at the problem of young people
carrying and using knives. It reports on two substantial surveys
which show that boys carry knives for reasons of fear and fashion.
The article then gives examples of local responses by youth
offending teams, schools and health agencies to tackle the problem.
Finally, it suggests priorities and activities that are needed to
reduce the number of young people carrying and using knives.
(1) Fear and Fashion: the use of knives and other
weapons by young people, available on www.lemosandcrane.co.uk
(2) S Beinart, B Anderson, S Lee, D Utting, “Youth at risk? A
national survey of risk factors, protective factors and problem
behaviour among young people in England, Scotland and Wales”,
Communities That Care, JRF, 2002. Summary available at
(3) Mori Youth Survey 2003: research study conducted by Mori for
the Youth Justice Board January-March 2003, available at
- Newham Council’s Respect campaign to reduce youth offending: www.Newham.gov.uk/content/Environment/respect.jsp
- Communities that Care’s work on reducing the risks and
increasing the protection of young people: www.
- Bridge House Trust’s grants programme in London www.bridgehousegrants.org.uk
Contact the author
Phone: 020 8348 8263