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Intervening early to prevent gang involvement: our south London collaboration


27 Jul 2017

The spectre of youth gang involvement has been in the news lately, following a report by the Children’s Commissioner estimating that more than 45,000 people nation-wide between the ages of 10 and 18 are members of a gang, and increasing concern at the rising levels of knife crime in the capital.

The reasons why young people get involved with gangs are varied and complex. We know that gang activity has a disproportionate impact on some deprived communities, and that, self-evidently, the very fact that a child lives in a gang-affected area increases his or her risk of becoming involved and committing or becoming a victim of violent crime or gang-related exploitation.

We also know that there are a set of risk indicators that can be identified very early in a child’s life. Some of these are perhaps obvious, and easily observable – having brothers or sisters involved in gangs, hanging around with young people involved in crime, running away, early drug use. Some may be less obvious – aggressive behaviour, low achievement in primary school, or low self-esteem. Crucially, these indicators are also predictive of other poor outcomes for children, including mental health problems, substance misuse, and worklessness, which suggests there are multiple, overlapping reasons to address these issues when children are still young.

We’ve been funded by the Battersea Power Station Foundation to conduct a three-year project looking at and testing opportunities for early intervention to prevent gang involvement in the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Lambeth. The first stage of this work is a piece of qualitative research involving primary schools in areas affected by gang activity or youth violence, to gauge the extent to which the early signals of risk are currently being identified, and the type of support available to vulnerable primary school-age children.

We’ll also be mapping the range of support available for primary school-age children, and assessing how this provision matches up to our understanding of what works to reduce their level of risk and to increase protective factors like self-esteem and good relationships with their parents. We know from previous EIF research that the evidence supports schools-based social and emotional development programmes, family support type programmes, and, for those already involved or with more complex needs, more intensive therapeutic interventions. The evidence suggests that approaches based on deterrence and discipline – so-called ‘tough love’ – are likely to be ineffective. And, despite its popularity, the jury remains out on the effectiveness of mentoring as a way of reducing gang involvement.

We’re grateful for the enthusiastic engagement of local authority, police and school colleagues in Lambeth and Wandsworth with our work so far. We look forward to continuing the partnership with them over the coming years to develop and test ways of working to make sure that children who may be at risk are given the right support at the earliest opportunity. We know that the earlier we can work with these children to strengthen their resilience, or with their parents to help them parent more effectively, the better the chance of them going on to live happy, healthy lives.

About the author

Stephanie Waddell

Steph is assistant director for impact and knowledge mobilisation at EIF.