No knives, better lives

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How is Scotland reducing knife deaths so effectively? A case study by Emily Beever outlines its youth work/public health approach to the problem


Over a decade ago, Scotland was facing a knife crime crisis. The introduction of the No Knives, Better Lives (NKBL) programme in 2009 was a response to the high incidence of knife crime and the concerning number of young people charged with handling an offensive weapon. NKBL is a national educational knife crime prevention programme funded by the Scottish Government and run by a national delivery team in YouthLink Scotland.

In 2006/07, 489 young people under 18 were convicted of handling an offensive weapon. Now, after years of hard work across sectors, we are in a very different position. The number of young people under 18 convicted of handling an offensive weapon has fallen by 81% and crimes of handling offensive weapons have decreased to their second lowest level since 1984.

Unfortunately, we have not seen this trend across the UK. Over the past year, there have been increasing spates of violent crime in England. Many have looked towards Scotland to learn from the reduction in violence and knife-related crime.

Understanding why

NKBL takes a youth work approach to prevention. In short, young people are supported to make positive decisions and practitioners learn in partnership with young people. A key element of this is understanding the reasons that may lead a young person to carry a knife. Coupled with a public health approach, treating knife crime as one would a disease, this means that effective prevention and early intervention programmes must also address the root causes.

The main motivators for carrying a knife are fear of crime and acquisition of status (see Dr Rebecca Foster, 'Knife crime interventions: what works?', September 2013, SCCJR Report No. 02/2014). Practitioners should take young people’s fear and efforts to protect themselves seriously. If left unacknowledged and unaddressed, we will not successfully deal with the cause of knife-related crime.

At the same time, practitioners must be cautious about projecting a false image of knife crime prevalence. With fear as a central motivator, it is easy to see how, as practitioners, we could worsen the situation with scaremongering tactics. We must strike a balance between acknowledging and dealing with young people’s fear, whilst not heightening their fears by exaggerating the prevalence of knife crime.

Social ‘norms’ must also be considered as part of the culture that may lead to a young person carrying a knife. We have integrated Robert Cialdini’s behavioural theory of the ‘big mistake’ - the idea that by emphasising the seriousness or extent of a problem, people can inadvertently reinforce it. For example, if we portray the image that knife crime is prevalent in a specific community, young people may feel the need to carry a knife because ‘everyone is doing it’.

Research from the youth justice sector in Scotland has also revealed the complex environment that contributes to knife-related crime amongst young people, including adolescent brain development; adverse childhood experiences (ACEs); school exclusion; and bereavement.

Knife crime is a complex issue that demands a multi-layered response. It is our belief that one agency or sector alone cannot solve the problem or adequately support young people. Rather, the response must involve professionals in health, policing, youth justice, education, youth work, social work and so on.

Learning for other areas of the UK

Despite operating with quite limited resources and capacity, NKBL has national presence and buy-in across Scotland. We credit our extensive network of practitioners working through national and local organisations to our success. The practitioner network is committed to and are prepared to invest in prevention and early intervention work. Working with local partners means we reach a much higher number of young people, thus have a higher chance of success.

Knife crime prevention is an ongoing piece of work. Statistics released in April 2018 show that school exclusions in Scotland involving weapons rose in 2016/17, an increase of 3.9% since 2012/13. Prevention, by its very nature, is something we should always be doing to stop crises from happening in the future. For us, one incident involving knives is one too many and we will continue to work with local partners to prevent knife carrying and crime.

Contributor Emily Beever, YouthLink Scotland


About No Knives, Better Lives (NKBL)

NKBL is a national initiative delivered at local level by practitioners including teachers, youth workers and community police officers. Local partners are supported by the NKBL team to develop and deliver youth engagement programmes, which raise awareness of the risks and consequences of carrying a knife and support young people to make positive life choices.

NKBL resources are shaped around the 4 Rs:

Reassurance | Risks | Resilience | Responsibility

In 2017/18, NKBL trained 300 practitioners; toured 60 schools with a play on knife crime reaching 12,000 young people; and trained 50 peer educators. See: noknivesbetterlives.com

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Author details: 
Emily Beever

Emily is a Senior Development Officer at YouthLink Scotland and manages the No Knives, Better Lives programme.