Using a sledgehammer to find a knife
Waltham Forest is one of the most deprived areas in London, and in the country. Of England and Wales's 376 local authorities, it's in the top 20 for overcrowded housing and single-parent households (a good indicator for poverty and poor outcomes for children), and in the top 30 for unemployment. It has among the highest levels of gang activity in the capital. To say it has a bit of a youth crime problem would be a generous understatement.
The council has introduced mandatory electronic weapons screening in 15 of the borough's 19 secondary schools. (The Times headline is wrong to call the checks 'random' - they are to be routine. It also repeats the rather uninformed story about stab vests.) So far no knives have been found, but the council has denied that it is being alarmist.
In one sense, it's easy to sympathise, since clearly there are knives (and worse) in circulation around Waltham Forest to some degree, and the evidence from policing suggests that those knives are overwhelmingly being circulated among young people. If the council want to start finding those knives, then schools don't seem a bad place to start. Setting up screening panels in libraries, fish shops and old people's homes would be alarmist.
The problem is, the screening is not a symptom of alarmism, though it is what you might call an unhelpfully broad application of a search methodology. Imagine going to Google wanting to find the engine spec on a new Porsche, and trying to find it by typing 'cars'. By searching every child, every day for knives, Waltham Forest are making sure they are kept busy forever sifting through incredible amounts of noisy and useless results. (Judge for yourselves whether 'noisy and useless' is a term fairly applied to teenagers.)
Normally, when you Google 'cars' instead of 'new Porsche engine spec', it's just your own time you're wasting. Your irrelevant search results won't think badly of you. And this is where the analogy breaks down. Screening every child, every day just sends the message that the council barely knows where to begin to find knives, and therefore that the individual kids and the gangs are smarter and better organised. (If ever organisations understood targeted marketing, gangs do.)
There are even more corrosive symptoms of this approach. It may not be alarmist, but it will cause alarmism. It will erode, probably quite quickly, the idea that schools are safe places, or that they represent something different from, even better than, whatever ideas or ideals drive behaviour in the communities surrounding them. No school in Waltham Forest can ever claim to be a beacon or a city on a hill now. And while it may be true that its schools are not perfectly safe places, there is little to be gained from such a stark demonstration that the council believes this, especially when combined with a search strategy that makes the powers that should protect look disorganised and confused. The sense of isolation and the fear that this will generate may drive more children into the care of gangs which, above all, offer protection and the illusion of control.
# Alex Steer (30/04/2009)