By Justin Parkinson
BBC News education reporter
Gang culture is seen as a problem by one in five of England's secondary schools according to a report by the education watchdog Ofsted.
British children 'rarely carry weapons'
It comes amid concern over levels of disruption and even violence in the classroom and playground.
Stories of weapons checks and drug tests at schools do little to alleviate fears.
But criminologist Simon Hallsworth thinks Britain's political parties are fuelling a "moral panic".
Attitudes to young people - particularly those from poor or ethnic minority backgrounds - had been negatively affected, he told BBC News.
Levels of violent crime had actually fallen but politicians had attempted to out-do each other to appear "tough on crime".
Mr Hallsworth, director of London Metropolitan University's centre for social evaluation and research, said: "The idea of gangs can be dangerous.
"Young people here are only doing what they have always done.
"Only America has an established gang culture. Young people here carry guns very rarely indeed.
"Even where there are gangs, such as in parts of south Manchester, members tend not to join until they are 18 to 21."
Mr Hallsworth has carried out research in deprived parts of Hackney, east London.
He found that, although young people hung around together, there was no "gang culture".
He said: "Standing with trousers down to your crutch and your hood on does not make you a member of a gang.
"Some of the poor kids I spoke to were excluded from everything. They were living in homes they shouldn't have to live in and were being called anti-social. Police were moving them on.
"Now we have Asbos [anti-social behaviour orders], which are draconian and politicians are competing to see who can seem the most 'anti-crime'.
"Kids are suffering. It's like we are criminalising being young.
"People branded the usual suspects as gang members. There were black kids and Bangladeshi groups being labelled.
"Young kids are doing what they have always done. Nowadays, when there are three or more of them hanging around they can be moved on."
Mr Hallsworth said that in Moscow - unlike London - groups of young people who spent time together in public were not bothered by police and that this had not resulted in higher levels of gang activity.
Some commentators have linked "tagging" - daubing personalised graffiti on walls - with gangs marking out their "turf".
But, Mr Hallsworth said, the practice had been happening for more than a decade and had only recently been linked to violent group behaviour.
He added: "We've had these panics before with mods, rockers, goths. This is the latest.
"Maybe we should understand more and condemn less."