A recent study by University College London (UCL) estimated that nearly one in 10 boys - more than 30,000 - has carried or used a knife, gun or other weapon by the age of 17 - double what we previously thought.
A quarter of those - nearly 10,000 - had also been directly involved in serious gang violence or crime.
It’s not just boys - the study also revealed that among girls aged 17, one in 25 has carried or used a weapon.
Figures around knife crime have continuously increased since the year 2012 - only in the quarter leading to June 2020 - during which we experienced a period of national lockdown and social distancing - did we see a one percent decrease. But with restrictions now lifted and life returning to normal, we’re once again facing the full impact of that increase.
One of the biggest issues we have is opportunity. More and more young people are carrying knives out of fear. The recent spike in violent activity means it is no longer just limited to gang members either - anyone who has been a victim of a robbery at knife point, for example, may well start carrying a knife for their own protection.
I speak to a number of young people and fortunately only a minority ever seek to be violent. Many of the young people who carry knives have no desire to use them.
From my own experience, and that of working with Antser, young people are often made or encouraged to attack others early on in their teens. By the time they are between 16-18 years’ old, they have done it so many times they have become desensitised to it. They may have also been a victim themselves or have friends that are victims and so, as a result, find themselves in a continuous cycle of violence.
Ultimately, there are multiple reasons why people start carrying knives but not enough reasons to stop.
So what can we do? While many of the young people I work with are school leavers, I do think schools need to acknowledge the issue early on. The issues stem from the events and areas these young people are coming from and so teachers and school staff need to be attuned to these issues. Young people will talk and brag; in the classroom, the playground, the corridors etc.
Those who are deemed high risk should be identified, thereby determining what interventions can be put in place. Young people need safe ways out, whether that be a safe way to hand in a knife or anonymous reporting. Schools therefore have an opportunity to partner with organisations like the police and other partner agencies to share data and intelligence in order to be able to provide those safe ways out.
Work should also be done to encourage other young people to share information - if they knows a fight’s happening they will want to see a fight, but we have to get into their heads - no-one wants to see a murder if one of the perpetrators happens to be carrying a knife.
One tool that has proven successful in addressing this ever-pressing issue is virtual reality (VR) technology. This unique tool is being used with both professionals across the social care sector - including local authorities, education and the police - and, most recently, young people themselves to increase empathy and understanding by providing an immersive experience.
VR enables the viewer to walk directly in the footsteps of a child or young person who may be being groomed and/or coerced. This first-hand experience moves the user from a theoretical understanding of the issues relating to gangs and knife crime to a ‘real-life’ understanding, which closely mirrors the young person’s environment, fears and emotions.
The VR experience therefore takes our empathy to another level, and it is this new level of empathy which builds stronger relationships and better practice, which ultimately leads to greater outcomes.
Jeffrey Wotherspoon is an Antser subject matter expert in gangs, county lines and knife crime and an executive coach and conflict resolution specialist.