Gang crime warning for Leeds pupils at Northern School of Contemporary Dance performances of Terriers

Left to right: Blacka Brown, Sarah Lloyd PC Mark Rothery, and Kauser Jan assistant headteacher at Bankside Primary School, Harehills. Picture by Tony Johnson.
Left to right: Blacka Brown, Sarah Lloyd PC Mark Rothery, and Kauser Jan assistant headteacher at Bankside Primary School, Harehills. Picture by Tony Johnson.

The power of art is being used to deter Leeds children away from a rising threat of gang crime.

Some 2,000 pupils from seven schools in the city are attending performances of Terriers, a play about the perils of violence-related deaths affecting teenagers in rival clans.

Cast members of Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre performing Terriers. Picture: Royal Court Theatre.

Cast members of Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre performing Terriers. Picture: Royal Court Theatre.

The week-long series of events at Northern School of Contemporary Dance - which is thought to be the first of its kind in the country in its scope - is targeting children aged between 10 and 14 in areas of Leeds most affected by such issues.

It comes after West Yorkshire was revealed to have the highest rate of knife and "sharp incident crime" outside London last year, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.

Bankside, Harehills and Hillcrest Primary School pupils aged 10 and 11 were the first in the city to see the show today, while students from Co-op Academy Leeds, Roundhay, Allerton Grange and Cardinal Heenan will have attended by the end of the week.

PC Mark Rothery and Kauser Jan, assistant headteacher of Bankside Primary School in Harehills, organised for the Liverpool-based Royal Court Theatre production to come to Chapeltown Road after seeing the play last year.

But they identified a need for work to be done in schools to address the issues it raises before and after the performances are seen - and each pupil is making a pledge on how they will help make their area more safe.

Ms Jan said: "Hopefully this approach is more creative. It's not been done before and it took a phenomenal amount of work in our personal time.

"Mark and I just wanted to make a difference. We're really conscious of the fact this is increasing and increasing and increasing and whatever's been taking place has not worked so far, has it?"

Debates raised in the play - those of peer pressure, weapons, gang crime, child sexual exploitation and more - have been weaved into her school's curriculum.

It is an approach that has won praise from education watchdog Ofsted, said Ms Jan.

She said: "Children are not stupid. Children can understand a lot more than we think and we can't whitewash anything. It's not about scaring them, it's about empowering them with the education and children can understand it.

"Any of these concepts that are out in society, children need to know about. It's not just about learning how to punctuate a sentence, it's not just about learning your timetables, because what's really going to keep them safe is the knowledge that they've gleaned about the potential dangers, about their own roles and responsibilities to themselves and to each other.

"There's a fallacious notion out there that you can't really discuss this if the children are too young, or you're taking away their childhood. No. They are living it, they can see it, they hear it and if you and I don't talk to them about it, who's going to talk to them, and what are they going to hear?"

Ms Jan added: "A lot of parents in communities, they don't understand, they hear about 'Oh yes, this is going on out there', but it doesn't sort of register, they're thinking 'It's not going to be our child, it's always somebody else's'. No it isn't. So that's the whole purpose behind this."

Sarah Lloyd, whose son Kieran Butterworth was murdered in Harehills in 2013 aged 17, was in the audience this morning.

Parents, West Yorkshire Police Chief Constable Dee Collins, police and crime commissioner Mark Burns-Williamson, MPs and councillors have also been invited to a performance on Wednesday evening.

The show, written by Maurice Bessman and directed by Miriam Mussa, was originally commissioned by Merseyside Police in 2008 using partnership funding, and has been seen by more than 120,000 school pupils across the UK.

PC Rothery hopes the play's hard-hitting message - one which comes after the Lives Not Knives campaign came to the city last year - resonates with pupils in Leeds.

He said: "That's one of the reasons why I liked it - because kids can relate to it. It's simple, it's a simple story that ends up in a bad way.

"The language that they do use, the kids can relate to it, all the camaraderie and all the gang culture - kids know it. Kids know everything, they know more than us."

And his own message for youngsters is also kept simple: "Being in a gang is not worth it, because it ends up in a bad way for them.

"Speak out - and don't be bullied. Stick up for yourself."