Gangs: A national emergency

Written by: Anne Longfield | Published:
Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England

A vital safety net is lost when a child is excluded or off-rolled – and the likelihood of their involvement in gangs and knife crime increases, says Anne Longfield

The recent knife crime murders of children have shone a light on an issue many schools have been dealing with for a long time. I speak with headteachers in schools and alternative provision who are desperate for more help for those children most at risk of becoming involved in gangs and knife crime. They are trying to do their best to keep these often very vulnerable children in school while also protecting the safety of staff and pupils.

So how do we do it? First, we need to acknowledge the scale of the problem and the motivating factors behind it. In February, I published Keeping kids safe, a report which suggests that there are tens of thousands of children in England either in a gang or on the periphery of one. Yet only a fraction of these children are known to children’s services, despite many of them being extremely vulnerable.

A child involved in a gang is 95 per cent more likely to have social, emotional and mental health issues and more than twice as likely to be self-harming, is 41 per cent more likely to have a parent or carer misusing substances and eight times more likely to be misusing substances themselves.

They are 37 per cent more likely to have witnessed domestic violence and 37 per cent more likely to be missing/absent from school. The early warning signs of gang-based violence have been on the rise too.

Despite this, I was shocked at how little information Local Safeguarding Children Boards in “high-risk” areas have about the numbers of children in gangs or at risk of being drawn into gangs. The responses of 25 LSCBs to our survey showed that many areas had no information on the levels of gang activity and risk among children in their area. It was often the areas with the highest levels of gang violence that had the least information.

Quite simply, not enough is being done to keep these at risk children safe, and I am worried that we are sleep-walking into a repeat of the child sexual exploitation scandal, only this time it is child criminal exploitation.

Balancing the needs and safety of the vast majority of children in schools who are there to learn with the needs of children who may be disruptive or who are already involved with gangs or in serious violence is tough.

I know that decisions to exclude are rarely taken lightly, but the fact is that exclusions are rising and we know too that there are a very small number of schools who are engaged in illegal off-rolling. Over the coming months, my office will be collecting data to identify those schools who are off-rolling (SecEd, February 2019).

The number of permanent exclusions has increased by 67 per cent from 2012/13 to 2016/17. Previous research has found that children excluded from school at age 12 are four times more likely to be in prison by age 24, while more than four in five boys in young offender institutes have been permanently excluded.

Self-reported gang members aged 10 to 15 are 5.5 times more likely to have been excluded or suspended in the last year and children aged 10 to 15 who carry knives are seven times more likely to have been so (Office for National Statistics).

Gang-associated children are six times more likely to currently be in alternative provision in the 12 months prior to their assessment than other children assessed by children’s services.

Ofsted is right to point out that not all alternative provision is bad and that many PRUs are excellent – but it is also important to remember that far too many are failing to meet children’s needs. As Ofsted has also said, it is often the same underlying issues which cause a child to be excluded and which makes a child a target for grooming and abuse.

What I want to promote is positive responses to these underlying issues within schools, recognising that the act of excluding a child in itself makes that child more vulnerable to gang violence.

As we know, being in school places a structure around a child. It provides a child with a set place to be, as well as relationships with trusted adults and peers. School is a vital safety net with a range of safeguarding responsibilities, which they discharge within the school or by notifying other agencies. All this is lost when a child is excluded or off-rolled.

I have been pleased to hear how some alternative provision is developing new models of working to provide support to children in schools to prevent exclusions. We know that the children most at risk have multiple interlinked vulnerabilities. These risks could be moderated or exacerbated by whether and how services respond when the child’s needs first emerge.

For example, a child could be supported within school instead of off-rolled or excluded, they could receive mental health support instead of being turned away, or they could have their SEN recognised (and receive appropriate support) instead of being left to struggle. The key is to give those children most at risk the help they need from as early an age as possible.

My ask of schools is to stretch every sinew to work with the police, health agencies and parents to focus on developing children’s resilience, supporting children’s mental health and to give vulnerable pupils the opportunities and protection they need.

I know the majority of schools are already doing this. What they need is a wider local system which recognises this. Instead, I hear from heads about daily battles to get pupils CAMHS and SEN support.

Schools need the information and guidance on how to recognise the warning signs and what interventions work, instead I hear about heads having to write their own manuals. We also need an accountability framework that gives proper weight to pastoral support and children’s wellbeing.

Alongside this, we need proper accountability for the small minority of schools who off-roll and exclude pupils in excessive numbers. These schools let down their pupils, put undue pressure on neighbouring schools who have to take-in these pupils and undermine confidence in the education system.

None of this will be cheap or easy and ensuring schools and councils have enough resources to provide the youth and early help services required to meet the needs of children at risk is absolutely essential. Politicians must show that they are up to the challenge and treat this as the national emergency it has become.

  • Anne Longfield is the Children’s Commissioner for England.

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