On Tuesday 23 April 2013, at about 3.00pm, serious youth violence in London claimed two lives, that of Derek Boateng who turned 16 that very day and of his 15 year old assailant (who cannot be named for legal reasons). Derek was stabbed to within an inch of his life on the 393 bus and had to be airlifted to a specialist trauma unit in hospital where he died the following day, surrounded by his family. He was an only son and had two elder sisters.
The air ambulance landed on the Astroturf pitch of Highbury Grove School on Highbury New Park, not far from the 393 bus stop.
Born in Homerton Hospital, Hackney in 1997, Derek lived all his short life with his family. His schooling career was clearly troubled. Having attended Brook Community Primary School in Hackney, he joined the Jack Petchy Academy, also in Hackney. He moved to Highbury Grove School two years ago but was excluded after just one year.
He later started attending Camden JobTrain, a vocational training facility catering for excluded students and run by Westminster Kingsway College. He had been at JobTrain for 15 months until 23 April when, having shared a birthday cake with students and staff at that centre, he left to start his fateful journey home.
His father, Davis Boateng, is reported as saying: “He was practical, rather than academic, but he was bright. He did distract the class sometimes, but it was a phase. He was starting to fulfil his promise, he wanted to be an engineer, and at his last parents’ evening the teachers praised him. He was starting to think about making a life’.
The principal of JobTrain commented: “He had had difficulties in the past but he was trying very hard to put the past behind him and turn his life around. He was attending regularly and devoting himself to getting education and training to set himself up for the future…. He had shown talent in art and design as well as motor engineering. Staff had been impressed with his dedication to his courses and were hoping to enter him into higher education”.
On 24 April 2013, the headteacher of Highbury Grove School wrote the following letter to parents/carers:
Re: Serious Incident – Tuesday 23rd April – on Highbury New Park
You will probably be aware by now that there was a serious incident after school yesterday in the nearby vicinity of our school. At this point, I do not have a great deal of information to share with you. Police attended following reports of a stabbing on the Route 393 bus. London Ambulance Service attended the scene along with the Air Ambulance, which needed to land on our astroturf pitch. The victim – who is not a Highbury Grove student – is in a critical condition in hospital.
I have addressed each individual year group this morning through assemblies; sharing with them the limited facts as we know them, and reassuring everyone that our school continues to be a safe and secure one.
It was a very sad way to finish a wonderful day in school, which had been filled with joy, celebration, and children sharing their talents and achievements. We had over 40 media organisations from magazines, newspapers and television networks covering Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and his wife’s continued involvement in our school. This press conference was part of publicising the Lloyd Webber Foundation sponsorship link we now have as a result of our innovative approach to music, and the wonderful opportunities Highbury Grove offers for all students.
Please be assured that I will keep you informed.
On the very day of the stabbing, the media was reporting that the victim was a student who had been excluded from Highbury Grove School. The headteacher states baldly and indeed accurately that ‘the victim – who is not a Highbury Grove student – is in a critical condition in hospital’.
Even if the headteacher had not known the identity of the boy one day later – and it is difficult to imagine how that could have been – or that he had been excluded from Highbury Grove just one year earlier, one would have expected a degree of compassion in that letter. A child was ‘in a critical condition in hospital’. His parents and siblings, his entire extended family and his friends would be distraught and full of anxiety as to whether his life could be saved. Highbury Grove students who travel by bus to school, or walk to school, would be anxious, too, especially given the level of fear of youth violence that exists among young people in London and elsewhere.
Never mind all those considerations, what is clear from the wording of this letter is the headteacher’s concern to distance the school from the incident itself: ‘the Air Ambulance needed to land on our Astroturf pitch’; ‘the victim…is not a Highbury Grove student…’, ‘…reassuring everyone that our school continues to be a safe and secure one’.
Presumably ‘safe and secure’ as in: please do not be anxious as to whether our school, which has been judged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, has students who run around with knives on their person or in their satchels, or of the sort who would get into altercations outside school with those who do; above all, be assured that the only link between the school and this unfortunate incident is the fact that the Air Ambulance ‘needed’ to land on our pitch.
Nothing said about the level of youth violence in the community and the fear that induces in young people, whether students of Highbury Grove School or not. Nothing said about what the school as part of the community from which its students come is doing to engage with students’ anxieties about that. Nothing said about how parents might support their children if the latter are expressing fear of travelling from or to school on buses. Instead, the letter projects the school’s high profile and high achievements, due in no small part to the dedicated involvement of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and his wife.
The school sent another letter to parents one week later on 29 April:
Re: Serious Incident – Tuesday 23rd April – on Highbury New Park
Following the Headteacher’s letter of 24th April, we are now writing to update you about further developments.
You may have heard that, sadly, since the incident on 23rd April, the victim has now died. Our thoughts go out to his family and friends.
We have also learned that the suspect being held by the police has now been charged. It is far from clear what the motive was behind the incident and more information will emerge, no doubt, as the matter progresses through the criminal justice system. We do understand though that the two young men knew each other.
In the current circumstances, the heightened police presence around the school will continue for the time being. Students, parents and staff have all indicated that this is reassuring and we have thanked the police on everyone’s behalf for their support.
Inside the school, the situation remains calm and students tell us that they continue to feel safe. We have arranged assemblies and are now offering support to any students (and staff) who feel they may have been affected by the incident.
This is a tragic reminder that some young people continue to carry knives. In the circumstances, we want to be sure that we are doing all we can within the school to promote the safety of all our students. So, we will continue to enhance our current safety measures.
We will keep in touch with you as things develop, but at this stage our key message is that we wanted to re-assure you about the action we have taken in the school and with other colleagues across the Borough, to ensure that our young people stay safe.
Chair of Governors
Even one week after the incident, by which time it was widely reported that Derek Boateng had been permanently excluded from Highbury Grove, the school makes no mention of the fact that he did attend the school and was excluded after one year. ‘…since the incident on 23rd April, the victim has now died. Our thoughts go out to his family and friends’.
‘The victim’ remains nameless and disconnected from our school. By inference, he was never part of us; neither he nor his parents were ever part of our school community. His killing outside our school has no context, save for the fact that ‘This is a tragic reminder that some young people continue to carry knives’.
Challenged by the media about this apparent lack of compassion and empathy, the headteacher is reported to have said to the Islington Tribune:
“On behalf of the school community, I wish to express our condolences to Derek Boateng’s family. It is wrong to suggest the school is distancing itself from the incident – but we are very conscious that there is a police investigation under way, and a young person in custody charged with this serious offence… It is therefore wholly appropriate that we exercise caution in what we say in relation to this incident.”
Due caution indeed, but how does acknowledging that Derek Boateng was until just over a year ago a student at your school potentially impair or impede a police investigation? There is evident correlation between school exclusion and the fate of those permanently excluded from school, as years of academic research has established, but it would be absurd to suggest that there is a causal relationship between the fact that Highbury Grove School excluded Derek Boateng and the stabbing outside the school that led to Derek’s death.
The letter sought to reassure parents/carers that:
we want to be sure that we are doing all we can within the school to promote the safety of all our students. So, we will continue to enhance our current safety measures.
This raises a number of important questions which one seldom sees schools addressing:
Parents are compelled by law to send their children to schools as places of learning in communities, unless they opt to educate them at home. They have a right to expect that the school will be a place of safety for their children and for those who teach them. But, how does the school as a place where children learn to develop emotional and social skills, self management skills and conflict resolution skills ‘promote the safety of all (its) students’ by means other than by enhancing its existing safety measures?
Given the number of gun- and knife-enabled murders involving children as young as 10 that there have been in this country since 1988, and the apparent ease with which young people could produce a knife and plunge it into the chest of others at arm’s reach, what is the function of school in engendering in children an understanding of human rights and respect for life and liberty, theirs and others’?
What is the function of school in guiding and supporting children to unlearn inappropriate behaviours and to embed commonly shared values by giving them practical expression in every aspect of daily living?
What is the function of school in working in partnership with parents/families and assisting children to develop human values that could shape and inform their attitude to themselves and their self worth, thus enabling them to bring those same values to their interactions with others and to their management of themselves in situations of conflict?
How can schools work with communities and not just the police towards a situation among young people where their safety and those of others is assured by their exercise of self control, sound self management skills and the application of living values, rather than by the coercion of school rules and sanctions, the presence and engagement of the police, or the use of knives and guns for ‘self protection’?
What is the point of schools’ rhetoric about being ‘part of the community’, yet, when children bring to school from those very communities the challenges they face, the anxieties they have and the inappropriate ways they adopt for dealing with those challenges, the school accuses them of seeking to import ‘gang’ culture into the school and excludes them?
Do schools not have a wider community education function in respect of all of those matters, having due regard to the community’s aspirations, complexity, strengths and challenges and not just the task of putting children through endless tests and public examinations?
That tragic murder outside Highbury Grove School and the school’s reaction to it is in my view a helpful case study of the extent to which schooling in this country has lost its way and how that is compounded by education secretaries who insist on proceeding ‘arse about face’ to deepen the crisis.
In the preface to ‘The Case for a Learner’s Charter for Schools’, I wrote:
For too many children, schooling is a massive irrelevance and both the regime of schooling and the curriculum fail to engage with the matters that preoccupy them in their living outside school.
The challenge, then, is how to make schooling relevant, how to address in schools the burning issues that young people take into schools from their homes, their peer groups and their communities and make sure that teachers have both the competence and the time and resources to deal with them.
Over 60% of all young people in Young Offender Institutions in this country gave up their schooling as a result of permanent exclusion from school. Among those are teenage murderers serving long sentences that would take them way into their late thirties and forties before release. The State’s hope is presumably that by the time they are released they would no longer pose a threat to the public on account of their lack of self management and anger management skills, their indifference to human pain and suffering, their anger at their circumstances and with the world around them, and their use of violence as a crutch.
The nation’s schools will continue to sift and select, nurture and exclude, place a quality stamp on some and dump others in the recycle bin. In the end, though, they cannot escape the crucial role they play in promoting social exclusion and building a two-speed Britain, one in which the Derek Boatengs within our communities will continue to be the casualties and their assailants a growing band of losers.
When a growing section of the youth population continues to feel they have nothing to lose and even less to gain, when their own freedom ceases to have meaning, it puts us all at risk, because the results for themselves of their desperate acts are of no consequence when compared to the instant gratification they derive from having the power to kill or maim somebody.
That is why we all have a duty to ensure that the nation as a whole does not continue to regard these relentless murders as ‘black on black’ crime. That is why we the people must stop and revisit the question: what is schooling for in this increasingly segregated society, irrespective of where government seems hellbent on taking it.
Picture (Home): “Highbury grove school london n5”, by David Holt London (Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0)