Editorial: Locking up gang leaders is only the beginning

Evidence that the arrest of more than 200 street gangs' leaders in the aftermath of the riots in August 2011 produced a spike in violence makes for depressing reading. With so many of the "elders" now behind bars, younger and wilder subordinates not only jostle, often brutally, for position, but the codes of behaviour enforced by the old leadership are relaxed.

Nor does the gloom end there. In fact, today's report from the Centre for Social Justice contains little that is heartening. Many of the grassroots organisations approached by the think-tank point to little or no progress in tackling gang culture; the authorities are criticised for not following up king-pins' arrests with closer involvement with junior members; and there are warnings of growing female involvement and a concomitant rise in sexual violence.

In the aftermath of the riots, David Cameron spoke of an "all-out war on gangs and gang culture". The Prime Minister's sentiments are understandable, given the mayhem that spread from London to towns and cities across the country, and the apparently high incidence of gang involvement (fully one in five riot-related arrests in the capital were of gang members). But a metaphor of war is far from apt.

Tough policing and strict punishment for law-breaking do, of course, have a place in breaking up gangs. As do disciplinary measures in schools, such as refusing to allow children to wear tribal colours. But – as every halfway successful gang-busting effort, from Boston to Strathclyde, has found – the key is to stop children wanting or needing to join in the first place. Simply focusing on locking up the ring leaders is not enough, gang membership must be made less attractive. And that means taking on fiendishly complex social problems and the disaffection, loneliness and boredom that result.

The to-do list is a long one. There is a central role for schools, not just in channelling children's mental and physical energies, but also in providing structure and support for those from chaotic family backgrounds, perhaps far into the evening as well as during the day. As educational success stories often show, a school that can strike a consistent balance between discipline and aspiration can work wonders with even the most wayward students.

Efforts cannot end at the school gates, however. Co-ordinated action from social services to deal with family problems is also central, as is a focus on useful training with a real job at the end of it, given the (apparently) easy money to be made from gang-controlled criminality such as drug dealing. And then there is the thrill to consider. Without proper alternatives, bored teenagers will get their kicks wherever they can. Meanwhile, similarly broad-based rehabilitation schemes are needed to help those already in gangs to extricate themselves.

None of this is easy. Nor is it cheap. The Government has put up £10m to help fund improved local schemes. Even if all relevant organisations knew the money was there – which evidence suggests they may not – the sum is not enough. There are some promising programmes out there. One is "Enough is Enough" in London's Waltham Forest, which has made great strides by focusing on the few families pivotal to the area's gangs. But at an estimated cost of £21,000 per family, funding may be hard to find when public money is tight.

This is no counsel of despair. As Waltham Forest proves, progress can be made. But today's report is a timely caution that warm words and business as usual will not do. The Government must heed the warning, or the violence, the criminality and the ruined young lives will go on.