A few weeks ago, two 10-year-old pupils of Dalmarnock Primary School in Glasgow – both from the same class – were caught carrying knives in the playground. The incident drew blood when one of the children, a boy, cut his hand to prove to other children that his knife was real.
Alhough we should not have to be reminded, it has become necessary in Scotland to state that possession of a knife is a criminal offence and not something to be brushed off as a minor misdemeanour. More explicitly, it is against the law to have with you in a public place, or a school, or a prison, an offensive weapon. In 2006, the maximum sentence for possession was increased to 12 months in cases heard before a sheriff and four years in cases brought on indictment.
Although both children in the Dalmarnock incident were over the age of criminal responsibility – in Scotland it is eight years – they were under the age at which they could be prosecuted (12). They could, however, have been reported to the social work department and referred to a children’s hearing.
Instead, the matter was dealt with internally. Both children were sent home, but allowed to return to school the following day, accompanied by their parents, for a meeting with the headteacher. Other parents, shocked that the police were not called to the school, got in touch with the Daily Record, which asked Glasgow City Council (the local education authority) for an explanation. A spokesman for the council stated baldly: 'The pupils have been severely reprimanded’. End of story, it seems.
Only five months earlier, at Cults Academy in Aberdeen, a trivial argument between two 16-year-old boys had escalated into the fatal stabbing of Bailey Gwynne. At the High Court trial of his assailant, it emerged that in first year or early second year the accused had been reported to the headteacher for carrying a knife and received a warning. For reasons that are far from clear, the school was unaware that he went on carrying a knife – to the extent, according to some reports, that he was seen with knives 'maybe 25 times’ before he used one on Bailey Gwynne.
There is a disturbing parallel between the Glasgow and Aberdeen cases: the apparent belief of two education authorities in different parts of the country that a criminal offence – the possession of a knife – is something that the school itself is entitled to deal with and that the schools in question felt no obligation to involve the police or the social work department. If these are more than random aberrations – if they amount to a policy sanctioned by education authorities – they effectively place schools above the law.
The failure to report such incidents has a second important result. It means that the incidents are never recorded and thus fall outside the radar of official statistics, allowing the Scottish Government to perpetuate a myth about the incidence of knife crime. The SNP administration has repeatedly claimed, and taken the credit for, a dramatic reduction in such crime, boasting recently that the number of people under the age of 19 convicted of handling an offensive weapon has fallen from 812 in 2006-7 to 146 in 2014-5.
A sense of purposeful activity, accompanied by the familiar air of self-congratulation, was conveyed in an exchange in the Scottish Parliament in January, before the Gwynne case came to trial, between two nationalist MPs, Stewart Maxwell and Paul Wheelhouse, on the apparently remarkable decline in knife crime in the west of Scotland:
Maxwell: I welcome the progress that has been made so far...Does the minister agree about the importance of educating young people through initiatives such as the no knives, better lives programme to ensure that that welcome reduction in crime continues? Will he reassure me that there will be no let-up in tackling the scourge of knife crime?
Wheelhouse: Absolutely. On the latter point, I reassure the member that we will not let up our efforts to tackle knife crime.
Nowhere in the matey duologue between the former minister for communities (Maxwell) and the current minister for community safety was there any suggestion that the much-heralded 'progress’ might be illusory and that the statistics might be grossly misleading; or that the administration’s unremitting efforts inexplicably do not include the placing of a duty on schools to report all breaches of the criminal law, including and especially the carrying of offensive weapons, not only to ensure that these incidents are properly recorded but to protect the children whose safety should be paramount.
A few weeks later, in the wake of the Aberdeen trial, there was an extraordinary statement from Jim Thewliss, general secretary of the body formerly known as the Headteachers’ Association of Scotland, now ludicrously rebranded School Leaders Scotland. 'Schools’, said Mr Thewliss, 'exist within a society where there is a bit of a culture of carrying weapons. It would be wrong to say it’s part of normal school life. But it is part of school life, and it does happen’.
If it is indeed 'part of school life’, and the Scottish Government is as committed to 'tackling the scourge of knife crime’ as it says it is, why is so little known about the incidence of knife crime in Scottish schools? Why do we have to rely on vague generalisations?
In a small country almost obsessional in its desire to monitor the behaviour of children and young people (as we see with the notorious Named Guardian scheme), it is odd that, among the many fact-finding exercises of dubious worth, there is such a paucity of information about the carrying of knives.
It is some years since the Scottish Goverment commissioned the last academic survey on the subject (the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime) and it was confined to a single city. The research was conducted so long ago that its results should be treated with caution. Nevertheless, its findings continue to make enlightening reading.
Among 4,300 children of secondary school age in Edinburgh who took part in the survey, 12% said they had carried some kind of weapon by the age of 12; almost a quarter had done so by the age of 14. Four out of 10 children had carried a weapon between the ages of 12 and 17. Over the six years of the study, it was estimated that the children who took part in it committed 10,200 offences. 'It seems likely that very few of these incidents ended up in the official statistics', concluded the study's authors. 'This highlights the hidden nature of this problem and raises questions about the quality of available data on which policy-makers must rely.'
What has changed? The Scottish Government uses its own dodgy statistics to propagandise its message that young people no longer regard knife-carrying as 'cool' and that its preventative initiatives in schools are working. These assertions lack a credible evidence base. On the other hand, we have Mr Thewliss's statement that knife-carrying remains 'part of school life'; and the recent examples from Aberdeen and Glasgow of how warnings and reprimands, stopping far short of reporting breaches of the criminal law, are somehow considered sufficient to deal with a potentially lethal problem.
The former head of Police Scotland's violence reduction unit has voiced doubts about the value of the independent inquiry into the Cults Academy tragedy which has been set up by Aberdeen City Council. 'My heart sinks...', he is quoted as saying. 'It won't make a blind bit of difference'. The appointment of an experienced and well-respected social worker, Andrew Lowe, to conduct the inquiry and the broad scope of his remit suggests otherwise. We must hope that his report proves of deeper value, and gets closer to the truth of what is happening in our schools, than the suspect official narrative being peddled at Holyrood.