When the student council of a north London secondary met to discuss knife crime, the discussion soon moved away from traditional campaign tactics, says Gerry Robinson

In a recent school council meeting our students were discussing how they could lead a campaign against knife crime.

There were the anticipated suggestions – poster campaigns, speaking in assemblies, visiting local primary schools and even T-shirts with the (now familiar) slogan “lives not knives”. But the most poignant contribution came from one of our year 10 students: “We don’t need to tell people not to carry knives, everyone knows that it is wrong and dangerous,” she said. “We all know what the risks are, but people still do it.”

What followed was a discussion about aspiration, motivation, finding your passion and being secure in your own identity. Our students were clear that this was where “lives not knives” really started to ring true: how do we get young people to be confident in their own identity, to see a future ahead and to work to achieve it?

In Wood Green, north London, we are no stranger to the anti-knife campaign. Our multicultural school sits in an area with some of the highest statistics for youth violence and gang crime in the capital. Our local ward, for example, was named in Haringey council’s Young People at Risk Strategy 2019 as a “hotspot” for knife injury victims under 25 and lethal barrelled firearm discharges.

How do we get young people to be confident in their own identity, to see a future ahead and to work to achieve it?

We have been directed towards the Home Office’s #knifefree campaign and various other charity-led campaigns. These definitely have their benefits, yet the problem still persists.

There is no easy answer for our students, most of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are living first-hand with the consequences of nine years of austerity measures, decimated youth services, reduction in mental health provision and cuts in education. These are the young people who know what it is to live in poverty. A slogan on a T-shirt is not going to change any of that.

A report published last month by the Institute of Fiscal Studies painted a bleak picture of widening inequalities in pay, health and opportunities that are causing deaths amongst the poorest and most vulnerable in society. The report’s findings did not surprise anyone at Woodside, where child poverty is a daily reality.

As I looked around the room in that school council meeting, I was again reminded that one of the greatest strengths of our school is our diversity, something that we champion daily. While I am confident that this gives students a sense of belonging to a community and make school feel a safe and happy place, what about beyond the school gates, in the streets of Tottenham and Wood Green? Our council member was absolutely right that the issue of identity is crucial.

At Woodside, staff work hard to teach our students far more than the national curriculum. We aim to instil a love of learning, passion for all areas of study and an exciting and diverse range of trips and experiences. We offer more than 70 clubs every week, including coding, ju-jitsu, debating, Lego engineering, chocolate-making, gardening, football, athletics, Mandarin and so much more.

We work to ensure that all cultural identities are represented and celebrated. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t incredibly challenging in the face of funding cuts. But seeing the rather bleak future that our students face is a powerful motivator to work hard to inspire them, to raise their aspirations and to equip them to be kind, compassionate and connected global citizens. We strive to help them know that their lives matter as much as anyone else’s.

With the rise in hate crime, we fear for our students’ safety like never before. Knife and gang crime is by no means our students’ biggest threat. When we talk about “lives not knives”, what we mean is that our children’s lives mean something, but they are being let down by the profound inequalities they face. That’s not a life that any child should have to experience. So it’s not “lives, not knives”. Just “lives”.