Youth Work – A Solution to the Knife Crime ‘Epidemic’?
There are daily media headlines currently about the current Knife Crime ‘Epidemic’ that is happening amongst young people in the UK. Office for National Statistics figures show that fatal stabbings are at their highest levels since records began in 1946 (BBC, 2019). This same report shows a 45% increase in the number of victims aged 16-24, and conversely the majority of suspects being males aged 16-24. The statistics also state that 25% of all victims were men aged 18-24 and that 25% of victims were black - the highest proportion since data was first collected in 1997.
The statistics and media reports raise interesting questions for youth workers, especially considering that many of them work with young people in the age bracket that are more likely to be both the victims and perpetrators of knife crime. Therefore, youth workers are uniquely placed to work with young people around these issues and help resolve them. The suggestion that youth work may be one possible solution has not gone unnoticed; especially when cuts to youth services and a reduction in police officer numbers have been touted as the cause (The Guardian, 2019). Whilst some may see this as a positive thing for youth work as a profession, with the possibility of additional money (therefore youth projects and jobs for youth workers), this needs to be regarded with more caution.
Firstly, one of the core principles of youth work is the commitment to Social Justice; creating a fair, equal and just society for all. This involves challenging oppression and discrimination that certain groups may face. Therefore, youth workers should not simply be drafted in as the solution, but have a responsibility to challenge the social, political and economic conditions that lead to young people, especially young black males, to feel unsafe in their communities, join gangs, carry knives and resort to violent crime. Youth workers should be working with young people to ensure that their experiences of oppression are heard by those who make policy decisions but also working to empower young people so that they themselves feel a sense of belonging and are able to bring about change and participate in the decision-making process in their local communities.
Secondly, the use of youth work as a targeted response to incidents of knife crime is a short-sighted solution that further pigeonholes youth work as a panacea to current moral panics. Instead, youth work should be valued for its universal provision, open to all young people, on their terms, supporting young people with the issues that they bring. Through long term investment in youth work, where meaningful and positive relationships can be built in safe spaces and young people are valued as part of the community, the educational work can be undertaken.
Positive change takes time and investment, and the Government’s austerity agenda has afforded youth work neither of these. With significant cuts to Youth Services and opportunities for young people reported by (Unison, 2016), the current ‘epidemic’ should come as little surprise; violence becomes the symptom of a generation of young people who currently feel isolated, marginalised, unheard. Further debate is therefore needed about whether youth work is the solution to young people using knives, or whether it is one piece in a large jigsaw.