From bad to verse: South London students are fighting violent crime with their own performing arts scheme

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The Independent Online

Fear of gun and knife crime stalks communities in our inner cities. Although official statistics show that it is still relatively rare, with knives used in 6 per cent of violent crimes and firearms in just 1 per cent, the headlines talk of a barrage of youth-on-youth knife and firearm attacks amid an increasingly violent and lawless street culture. For those communities devastated by these senseless slayings, it doesn't matter what the headlines and statistics say: they need action to counter the downward spiral of fear and hopelessness that begets only more violence and vengeance on our streets.

In an attempt to help combat the issue, colleges are increasingly picking up on the problems faced by their young students and reaching out into the wider community with an alternative, positive message.

Southwark College in south London, where there has been a series of fatal stabbings this year, is working with the Metropolitan Police on a computer games initiative – with a gaming tournament on the cards – in a bid to get local youths off the streets and introduce them to the possibilities of college life.

Meanwhile, South Thames College is also targeting young people in the community, with its Lifewise project having pulled together 200 young people from the college and six secondary schools in the borough of Wandsworth to collaborate on an anti-gun and knife crime campaign.

"Education is increasingly about collaboration and this was an opportunity to work more closely with local schools on a theme that is central to all our lives," says Mary Zinovieff, head of creative industries at the college. "It's a topic that engages learners very quickly because it's something they are concerned about and, sadly, are in touch with."

The Lifewise project stretched across the curriculum, with performing arts students creating and touring a theatre production, writing and mixing a CD of original music tracks and filming video promos. The project name, logo and promotional materials were created by the college's art and design students, while business studies students worked on promotion, marketing and merchandising. Those from the health and social care department drew up an action plan designed to tackle the social cohesion problems that can contribute to violent crime. Their ideas were presented at City Hall, home to the Mayor of London, in May. But this wasn't the end of Lifewise. Its message and collaborative ethos continue to have an impact on those who took part.

"It was great to work with the Year 11 students," says Christopher Smith, a second-year student on a music technology course at South Thames. "There should be more of that kind of collaboration. They got to see what it was like to be in college and we knew where they were at because we have been there ourselves."

He believes performing arts are a great way to take the anti-gun and knife crime message out onto the streets. "If people don't have these positive outlets, then they will use their talents for something else," says Smith. "Every child listens to music and watches TV, so it's a great way to get the message across."

It was refreshing for the students, too often described merely as victim or perpetrator by the media, to take the lead and run the campaign. "It's so important for young people to have a forum where they can talk about things," says Smith. "And we visited local politicians to put our case across to them, which was very satisfying."

The project also pushed the students creatively. There were workshops run by professional musicians – Rodney P, the hip-hop artist, gave a lyrics writing masterclass – and the CD was professionally mixed and mastered, using both the college's own studios and external facilities. Smith adds that he also enjoyed using the smart phones that came with the project, which enabled the students to instantly swap messages, video clips and ideas for lyrics.

The campaign is now being rolled out to local primary schools. "We're looking to work with two primary schools in the spring," says Zinovieff. "It will be a media, art and design project to develop materials, such as a booklet and animation, to build awareness and develop an anti-gun and knife crime message among Year 5 children, which, sadly, is where it often starts."

These college-led initiatives can't solve the problem of gun and knife crime in south London on their own but the lyrics that come from the students of South Thames College show it's a step in the right direction. "You've heard all the tracks about stop the gun violence/But this is no longer a track/This is an action/Check my reaction/Enough is enough/I'm calling the bluff/Of the gun totters/The street moppers..."