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  • Sarah Johnson

We have rules so the children don’t misbehave in big ways

In Star Trek Generations, in the episode Justice, there is a scene where Wesley Crusher gets permission to go to another planet with the away team. Now, I don’t want to go on about how really Captain Picard and Commander Riker should have sorted out a more robust risk assessment and had better oversight of Wolf’s cursory glance of the rules, as with more sensible forethought of the Enterprise crew I wouldn’t be able to use this as an example of a blog.

Wesley Crusher beams down on the planet, who are all very nice and polite. The planet appears as orderly, their grass is cut nicely and they seem to be congenial. Obviously that only lasts for so long before Wesley Crusher has the audacity to walk on some grass which clearly says to keep off. A series of events occur where this infraction of this basic rule means that Wesley Crusher has to be put to death. Captain Picard faffs around for a while because of the Prime Directive before everything is sorted for Wesley to break the rules in future episodes instead.

Katharine Birbalsingh in her role as Commissioner for Social Mobility appeared in a radio interview for LBC discusses how ensuring that children wear school uniform ensures that they don’t then engage in infraction of more serious rules, the example given being that of bringing in knives into school. This is a huge leap and I am not convinced that this argument holds up to any scrutiny.

You might also be thinking that ideas of zero tolerance and the broken window theory are interchangeable. They are not. Whilst Katharine Birbalsingh is a keen advocate of the broken window theory it seems that the argument around school uniform and knife crime sits more to that of zero tolerance.

Let me explain, broken window theory works on the premise that if you allow incivility to go unchecked (in this case the metaphor of a broken window is used) then other delinquent behaviour will occur in that area. Think for example of your green suburban areas without graffiti compared to that of the going through London on a train and seeing the colourful urban walls that have been thrown up overnight. Those areas of London where the incivility remains unchecked (the smashed up window, the graffiti etc) means that individuals may feel emboldened to do other more serious activities such as drug taking, assaults and so on. The broken window theory is not used to explain that you have harsh rules so children can break them and reinforce norms and values of a society.

Zero tolerance on the other hand may not be where any crime has been committed or an infraction of rules but the other focus on potential infraction and I think this perhaps sits with Katharine Birbalsingh argument more closely. That the focus and control of the little things (sweating the small stuff) means that the bigger violations do not occur.

Holding up this argument to scrutiny, does having a school uniform prevent knife crime. My answer is a resounding no. It over simplifies any perceived correlation between the two which has no rational argument and what’s more. It is dangerous.

Knife crime is complicated. It will always be complicated. It isn’t just about primary socialisation (how children are brought up and share a value of a culture), it is not just about contextual safeguarding (which other people in an environment that may be causing risks), it is not just about children feeling safe and thinking a knife may protect them. It is not just about poverty, deprivation. If it is not all these big things, how an earth can it be about whether or not someone is wearing black trousers, a white shirt and a tie. It is certainly not because kids have the opportunity to rebel by rolling their skirt up and are then told off and that’s all they need to get carrying a knife out of their system. In fostering this argument we put at risk actual meaningful dialogue that can promote real change and really support children and young people in making different choices (or reiterating they have choices). Yes saying ‘wearing school uniform prevents knife crime’ is a quick easy fix isn’t it? It’s a distraction from the real work of social mobility commissioner which is where the circumstances of birth do not predict the outcomes of later life.

Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about if you are poor, if you are black, if a woman, if you are disabled, if you live in certain areas of the country, you are less likely to go to university, you are less like to earn well, that your life outcomes are curtailed in some way or another. Let’s talk about that and bring real change to the exploited, the vulnerable, the groomed in our communities that are carrying and using knives.

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