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Poirot couldn’t solve this one on his own: Inclusive education for the most vulnerable

Rhiannon Barker, Research Fellow at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

In her recent BERA Blog post Margaret Mulholland (2022) asserts that truly inclusive education involves the ability to think like a detective. To be truly responsive to the needs of children and young people who are challenged by the school environment requires, she states, a more holistic response for each child, incorporating an understanding of the way they think, their interests, strengths and fears – as well as reference to the contextual environment. 

Last year I worked on a project exploring links between school culture and mental health. One of the case study schools had particular concerns about the involvement of a small number of their students in violent, criminal gangs. Drawing on this, I successfully bid for an NIHR Mental Health fellowship which sets out to explore, from the perspective of gang-involved young people, their trajectory into this marginalised way of life. Factors predisposing young people (YP) towards gang involvement are complex and multi-layered; this study will pay particular attention to links between gang involvement, mental health and experiences of school. Gang-associated children were found to be 77 per cent more likely to have an unidentified mental health need than other children assessed by children’s services, and are twice as likely to self-harm (CCE, 2019). Moreover, where YP have been excluded from mainstream school and sent to pupil referral units (PRUs) the danger of gang recruitment is higher; indeed PRUs have been identified as ‘fertile ground’ for grooming YP into becoming gang members (CCE, 2019). The majority of gang members either self-exclude (truant) or have been officially excluded from school and are likely to be spending large amounts of time unsupervised on the streets (Young et al., 2007). 

‘Gang-associated children were found to be 77 per cent more likely to have an unidentified mental health need than other children assessed by children’s services, and are twice as likely to self-harm.’ 

The lack of available evidence looking at how and why YP gravitate into gangs is compounded by a number of factors: poor-quality research; lack of comparability across gang research; a rapidly evolving model of gangs; the upheaval and system changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic; and the target group of YP being hard to reach (Densley et al., 2020; Harding, 2020; Raby & Jones, 2016; Wood & Alleyne, 2010). Qualitative insights from young people, such as those that will be provided in this study, will be central to filling the gaps that this study seeks to address: to enable the identification of broad risk factors; to contextualise existing quantitative data; to build conceptual frameworks hypothesising mechanisms; and to help identify (particularly following the pandemic) where evidence may be incomplete (Calderoni et al., 2020). 

The project protocol is available to view here, and I am currently engaged in Phase 1 of the project, focusing on patient and public involvement (PPI) consultation, setting up a multidisciplinary advisory group and scoping the literature. Phase 2, involving depth interviews with gang involvement will follow later in the year. My ambition is that the outcomes will directly inform policy and practice by providing insights into how we can help schools to transform 1) into settings which are places where our most marginalised young people want to be, and 2) into institutions which encourage a sense of belonging, building self-esteem and connection rather than perpetuating division and inequality. The current English education system continues to rely heavily on passive forms of didactic learning and there is a growing clamour for change, not only to focus more on skills required for the real world but to pay attention to student health and wellbeing (Coulter et al., 2022). If the student doesn’t fit the school, it’s not always a matter of reshaping the student; there may also be a need to reframe our educational establishments. While, as Mulholland (2022) suggests, a detective’s enquiring mind may well help identify creative solutions, young people also deserve the opportunity to help forge systemic change. 


Calderoni, F., Campedelli, G. M., Comunale, T., Marchesi, M. E., & Savona, E. U. (2020). Recruitment into organised criminal groups: A systematic review. Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, 583, 1–28.

Children’s Commissioner for England [CCE]. (2019). Keeping kids safe: Improving safeguarding responses to gang violence and criminal exploitation.

Coulter, S., Iosad, A., & Scales, J. (2022). Ending the big squeeze on skills: How to futureproof education in England. Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Densley, J., Deuchar, R., & Harding, S. (2020). An introduction to gangs and serious youth violence in the United Kingdom. Youth Justice, 20(1–2), 3–10.

Harding, S. (2020). County lines: Exploitation and drug dealing among urban street gangs. Bristol University Press.

Howell, J., & Egley, A. (2003). Risk factors for gang membership in longitudinal studies and implications for intervention. National Youth Gang Center.

Mulholland, M. (2022, August 5). Think like a detective: The vital clue to inclusive teaching! BERA Blog.  

Raby, C., & Jones, F. (2016). Identifying risks for male street gang affiliation: A systematic review and narrative synthesis. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 27(5), 601–644.

Wood, J., & Alleyne, E. (2010). Street gang theory and research: Where are we now and where do we go from here? Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(2), 100–111.

Young, T., Fitzgerald, M., Hallsworth, S., & Joseph, I. (2007). Groups, gangs and weapons: A report for the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales. Youth Justice Board of England and Wales.