There is a tension between what the police have to do for the communities they serve – preventing people coming to harm and upholding the law – and what they’d like to be doing in terms of public outreach. One of the areas where this tension is felt keenly is the police’s work with children within schools.
There are 43 separate police services working across England and Wales and many are signed up to the Safer Schools Partnership policy which provides best practice guidance for the police and schools to work together. In practice, it is up to chief constables to decide how police officers’ time is best spent, and some areas have no Safer Schools Partnerships at all. In others, dedicated police officers are embedded within schools, working to protect pupils and intervene early to prevent youth offending.
This was the picture painted at a recent meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, which is holding an inquiry into children and the police. It was encouraging to hear about the successful work by school-based officers from the Met and Cheshire and to hear first-hand from pupils who had benefited from their support.
Of course, not all schools want to have police officers working within their premises. There is an understandable concern that involvement with the police may risk unnecessarily criminalising the very students they are there to support, and that social workers and welfare officers would be better placed to deal with the problems facing children whose behaviour may be the result of complex domestic problems or SEN.
However, partnerships between schools and the police can lead to very positive outcomes for the whole school community and for individual young people. Tytherington High School in Cheshire is a beacon of good practice, where following the embedding of a police officer, attendance rates have improved and incidents of misbehaviour decreased. The school was targeted because it is located in an area with a high risk of youth offending. At first the school’s decision to accept an officer was criticised. Headteachers from nearby schools said it was a mistake, as it would lead to being perceived by parents as a problem school with difficult pupils. However, one year on, those same heads were requesting that the police officer work in their schools too.
At Tytherington High, pupils receive advice on their own future and their own conduct. They receive restorative support when relationships break down and safeguarding support. They also receive support in returning from periods of exclusion or during alternative measures. They gain from the engagement programmes that the officer has led within the school, particularly with a group at risk of becoming NEET.
In London, safer schools are a key part of the Met’s neighbourhood policing model. There are currently 282 safer schools officers serving 648 schools across the capital. In addition, there is further support from an expanding number of neighbourhood policing teams.
At the inquiry, the best recommendations for the power of school policing came from young people themselves. One young man explained that prior to working with his school police officer, “I didn’t see myself achieving anything so I did a lot of things related to crime in and outside of school”.
The school and the police agreed that requiring him to do community work would help more than receiving a criminal record and this was the trigger for him, as he said, to “turn my life around”.
For young people like this, the intervention of a specially trained police officer at school may make all the difference, but other welfare interventions should be sought too. Above all we must avoid criminalising the vulnerable young people we are trying to help.
Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk