The Johnston Press Investigations Team today reveals that knife crime is growing rapidly in schools across mainland Britain - but that the problem is virtually non-existent in the Northern Ireland education sector.
Teachers across England and Wales are facing a spiralling number of knife crimes in their classrooms and playgrounds, according to figures obtained exclusively by the Johnston Press Investigations Team from police forces and local education authorities.
And frighteningly, our investigation shows a ticking time-bomb in England, Scotland and Wales as, somewhere in Great Britain on every school day, a child will be caught carrying a knife into school.
More than 2,400 pupils have been caught in English and Welsh schools with a knife, blade or other weapon since 2012, data obtained under Freedom of Information laws from more than half of UK police forces reveals.
And the crisis is growing. Our investigation shows a 42.2 per cent rise in children caught in possession of a knife or blade or other weapon over the last two academic years.
But some areas of the UK including rural counties have seen increases of up to 200 per cent. Reports of knife crimes in English and Welsh schools have increased overall by 12 per cent.
However in Northern Ireland the figures are in stark contrast, with approximately only one conviction a year for possession of a knife on school premises, according to available figures.
Reassuringly, a wide range of figures from Northern Ireland have affirmed that knife crime is not a substantial issue among young people here.
The Education Authority for Northern Ireland said only one knife related incident was recorded in Northern Ireland schools in 2016/17. It declined to reveal any further information, citing data protection.
Former justice minister David Ford previously gave MLAs figures consistent with the Education Authority record, indicating an apparent trend of around only one prosecution for possession of a knife on school premises per year; in 2012-14 he said there were less than three convictions for possession of an article with a blade or point in Northern Ireland schools, and in 2006-8 there were only three.
The News Letter asked three teaching unions, the Ulster Teachers’ Union, National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) about the rate of knife crime in NI schools. The only awareness of the issue came from NASUWT, which said it only had one member who had any experience of knife crime in school, but that it was not thought to have been serious.
The number of stab wounds generally over the past three years disclosed by Northern Ireland health trusts was only 161, with an additional 10 children specified. The figures broke down as:
• Belfast Trust – 64 (ages not specified)
• SE Trust – six injuries 2015-17, ages not specified
• Western Trust – 89 adult cases plus 10 children
• Northern Trust – figures too low to disclose
• Southern Trust – does not collate this information.
PSNI figures also show a lower rate of overall knife crime generally than in England and Wales, but do not break the figures down into age categories.
PSNI figures show a drop of 21% in average annual knife crime over the past three years in the Province, compared to the eight previous years.
In 2007/8 to 2014/15 the average was 912 knife offences per year, dropping to 723 from 2015/16 to September 2017.
Several former Stormont ministers – former education minister Peter Weir and former justice ministers Mr Ford and Claire Sugden – also affirmed that knife crime in schools was not an issue raised with them while in office.
A rare school case became public in 2006 when a 13-year-old boy was stabbed in the chest with a penknife in Ballymoney High School. The injuries were not life-threatening. The PSNI held a three-week knife amnesty across Northern Ireland several months afterwards.
A slight rise in knife crime prompted the PSNI to relaunch its knife awareness campaign in 2008/09.
The chief constable’s annual report that year affirmed that knife crime in Northern Ireland was “not on the same scale as some parts of the UK”, however officers invited all post-primary schools in Belfast, Londonderry, Lisburn, Omagh, Newtownabbey and Banbridge to see a specially devised drama, with 4,000 pupils attending.
More recently, in 2016 Ms Sugden told MLAs that knife crime generally was at its “lowest level since 2007 and down almost 15% on the previous year”.
The Department of Justice Crime Survey in 2015/16 did not mention knife crime, but it confirmed in broad terms the comparison between schools in Northern Ireland and across the water; it found the risk of becoming a victim of crime generally was 6.3% lower in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales.
Superintendent Simon Walls from District Policing Command also drew attention to the recent drop in general knife crime here.
“We are not complacent about knife crime and our figures show that there has been a reduction in the number of incidents recorded,” he told the News Letter.
“We also continue to focus our efforts on the prevention of knife crime.”
A PSNI educational presentation ‘Guns and Knives ruin lives’ has been delivered to schools and youth clubs across Northern Ireland, reinforcing the message that carrying of knives is illegal and that knives take lives, he said.
“In reality we need the whole community to work together to deal with this issue and to reinforce the messages knives are illegal, don’t carry them.
“They take lives.”
• In tomorrow’s News Letter - we ask a range of experts why there is such a disparity between knife crime in NI schools compared to England Scotland and Wales.