I am writing to enter the Times investigation into gangs in schools and the impact it has on both students and staff. Through an automated programmatic technique we surveyed more than 1,300 schools – thought to be the biggest analysis of its kind – and found that children as young as eight are being groomed by gangs and exploited by drug dealers, with pupils bringing zombie knives, hammers and knuckle dusters into classrooms.
We highlighted the problem schools were facing when it comes to gangs, weapons and security and the impact that it is having on the education system.
We spoke to 186 children across five secondary schools and a pupil referral unit — a school that accommodates the most troubled and disruptive pupils — with help from the charity Votesforschools.
One of these children – a 15-year-old from Epsom in Surrey said “knife crime has been normalised: it happens so often, no one is really alarmed by it any more. But if we spend every moment fearing for our lives, not taking risks, is that even living?”.
We sent a bulk email to schools asking for their contribution to our investigation. This was done using a script, written in node.JS, that sent an email with a personalised URL to 5,000 schools email addresses that we had collated in our own in-house database. The URL directed schools to a form that we built and was hosted on The Times’ website. Once schools had filled out the form, which contained questions on a number of topics including gangs, weapons and security, this populated a database on formstack.
After a grace period of 30 days we could then start to analyse the database and the responses we received. This was done using the R programming language and I started to look for conclusions and trends that could be drawn from the results. For example, we found that more than 60 per cent of the secondary schools searched children, some more than once a week, using airport-style security, metal wands and sniffer dogs to find drugs and weapons.
Without the automated setup of this process from the bulk email to data collection, this investigation would not have been feasible as speaking to more than 1,000 schools would not have been possible. Furthermore, this is a process that we will be able to replicate for future projects, for example if we wanted to speak to multiple councils at once.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The hardest part was analysing the vast amount of information we received back from the schools and deciding what was the most interesting and important to write around. We wanted to ensure that we presented real-life examples and not just focus on the facts and figures.
What can others learn from this project?
To make sure you send the FOI from an email address that isn’t your own otherwise you’ll have a lot of schools responses to deal with!
We spent a lot of time on making sure the email we were sending was as clear as could be in terms of the instructions for the schools to follow. We thought a lot about what we wanted to achieve and what information we wanted to obtain from the school.
By spending a lot of time on our data collection process we were able to maximise the number of schools we could speak to with relatively little manual work.