The Schools Project was set up to gather information from young people about their experiences of crime and bullying, in school and in their communities. It was part of Design Out Crime, a 2008–10 initiative from the Home Office’s Design and Technology Alliance against Crime and the Design Council.

At the end of the project, we created a guide called 'Understanding crime in schools so design can intervene'. It summarizes the project and findings, and offers insight about how designers can use the information to help reduce and prevent crime affecting youth.

The problem

Everybody wants children to have safe and healthy environments in which to learn and develop and, fortunately, most schools provide this. Some, however, have problems with crime and violence that put teachers and children in danger and undermine teaching and learning.

Figures from the 2009–10 British Crime Survey suggested that 24% of young people were victims of crime in the previous year – mostly at school. The survey indicates that more than 2.1 million children suffered violence, robbery or theft, suggesting they are at greater risk than adults. According to an Ipsos MORI survey for the Youth Justice Board, 29% of secondary schoolchildren admitted to routinely carrying knives.

One significant area of youth victimisation is bullying. Made possible in recent years through technology, cyber-bullying is a new form of bullying that can take the form of abusive text messages, digitally sharing humiliating photos and videos and online hate campaigns and threats.

There is a two-way flow of influences with bullying: what happens in schools is often influenced by factors at home and in the community and, in turn, bullying in schools can spill out into the wider world. This strongly suggests the problem cannot be successfully dealt with in isolation.

Our approach

As part of Design Out Crime, the Design Council commissioned the Sorrell Foundation to run the Schools Project. 150 young advisers from secondary schools in six regions (London, Basildon, Bolton, Bradford, Merthyr Tydfil and Nottinghamshire) were engaged to gather and share information about young people's experiences of crime and bullying, not just in school but in the community in general.

The young advisers were split into three teams to identify crime issues in three different situations: at school, on the journey to and from school and in the community.

Advisers were asked to apply for the role of team reporter, with the task of investigating the crime issues in more depth. The reporters shared their findings using photography, film and PowerPoint presentations.

After creating visual boards about the issues, the young advisers then worked with Sorrell Foundation facilitators to develop their boards into presentations with short, scripted role-plays.

The project culminated in a presentation at the Home Office, followed by another, specially requested, to the 32 London Metropolitan Borough Police Commanders. Advisers presented what were called their Young People’s Briefs – summaries of their findings on crime issues – to audiences of decision-makers and community leaders.

The findings

At school

The most common problems at school were bullying and intimidation. Fighting and vandalism were also cited. Pupils also talked about theft of both cash and possessions; mobiles were the most commonly stolen items, followed by bicycles. Almost all of the advisers said problems mainly happened in unmonitored/unsupervised areas such as toilets, changing rooms, playgrounds, school gates, car parks, stairwells and corridors.

Because of the way the school is built, there are a lot of hidden places.

a young adviser from Bolton

Journeys to and from school

Young advisers in all areas reported feeling vulnerable on journeys to and from schools – and from a very consistent set of factors. Bus stops and buses were repeatedly cited as problem areas where pupils might be threatened, for example by rivals from other schools. Pupils walking to school repeatedly spoke of feeling intimidated in parks and other public places, alleys and street corners. Inadequate lighting and inadequate CCTV were said to make this worse. Other problems included peer pressure, poor road safety and fear of carrying valuables like cash and mobiles.

Fighting between schools doesn’t get sorted because it involves pupils from different schools. Nothing gets done.

a young adviser from Nottinghamshire

In the community

The wider community was where the greatest number and widest variety of problems were identified. Problems included drugs and alcohol abuse, gangs and intimidating groups, a lack of facilities, boredom and a poor relationship with the police.

Design opportunities

Laying out the most common problem areas and the factors that contribute can turn an apparently chaotic morass into a clear set of material problems for which solutions can be attempted. The young advisers were able to identify five issues that affected all schools involved in the project. Each of these can be seen to represent a design opportunity.

1. Communication
The young advisers found there was a need for better communication between young people and the police, bus drivers, shopkeepers, teachers and peers. They said improved relationships would encourage trust and respect and help them feel more supported in their communities. As one young adviser from Bolton put it, ‘When the police do talk to us the conversation is minimal. They only ask about crime, they ignore you and sometimes don’t even believe you.’

2. Places and spaces
The desire to feel ownership over spaces and a sense of belonging was a common theme. Advisers emphasised that young people often feel intimidated and frightened, avoiding parks, roads and alleyways because of the presence of gangs. Improving visibility and safety through street lighting may be a priority issue for designers to address.

3. The school environment
There was generally a call for a more civilised approach to safety and security at school. In particular, advisers wanted adequate storage for personal belongings and safe but unintimidating security measures, especially in bullying and vandalism hotspots like unmonitored toilets and school gates. A young adviser from Bradford neatly encapsulating the problem: ‘How do you make schools safe without them looking like prisons?’

4. Journeys to and from school
Bullying and fighting occur at points of convergence along many students’ routes to school. The young advisers described problems on buses, at bus stops and while walking. One adviser from London said, ‘Bus stops become crowded after school, with people just hanging around. There’s nothing to do so young people start on each other.’ The advisory groups also emphasised that provision for cyclists is often poor, both on the roads and in schools.

5. The virtual world
Approximately 90% of the young advisers in the Sorrell Foundation’s research had been affected by cyber-bullying to some extent. The anonymity allowed by some technologies means that many victims do not know their abusers, making cyber-bullying hard to avoid or control. A young adviser from Nottinghamshire said, ‘Cyber-bullying happens a lot! As a perpetrator you feel safe because you’re removed from the victim. It can be done from anywhere.’ Bullying and disputes that take place online can easily spread to school, resulting in physical fights. The young advisers saw this as a major area of concern.

The big picture

Looked at as a whole, the data suggests strongly that young people face their greatest difficulties in the wider community. As one young adviser from Bradford put it, ‘Crime – it’s after school, that’s when it all starts.’ In the community, the thread that linked almost all the other problems was boredom. But how can schools with limited resources offer pupils more activities?

The solution might lie in other problems. Rivalry between schools was highlighted. Might shared activity between schools be a way of decreasing rivalry – and making best use of limited resources for extracurricular activity? Young advisers also asked for better information about the opportunities on offer to them: might a web resource on existing opportunities reveal that the need for schools to offer extra activities was not as great as first imagined?

The Schools Project demonstrates just how integral this kind of research is to the design process. Whether dealing with products, layouts, systems or services, design is about interventions in the material world and only by understanding real-world circumstances in depth can designers ensure that their interventions are effective.

The outcome

The Schools Project gave young people a voice, established communication routes with policy-makers and provided insights that can help develop briefs for designers. We believe the project will help designers, manufacturers and policy makers to better understand the scale and effects of crime affecting youth and encourage more design commissions in tackling the problem.

Learn more about the Schools Project and its findings in our document 'Understanding crime in schools so design can intervene'.

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