County lines: A world of violence, intimidation and crime

Written by: Darren Martindale | Published:
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Young offenders are not as ‘popular’ as other vulnerable groups and yet in a world of intimidation, violence, county lines and organised crime, their need is just as great. Schools are among those on the front line of this battle. Darren Martindale explains more

Some time ago, I was delivering training around how schools can best support pupils in the youth justice system, or “young offenders”. As we delved deeper into the subject, and I explored the acute vulnerabilities of these children, a member of the audience raised a hand and, with a quizzical expression, made the observation: “You seem to view these young people as victims.”

I was as puzzled as he was, because it had never occurred to me that this was anything other than obvious.

This brought home to me, however, that young offenders are not as “popular” as some other vulnerable groups, such as children in care or disabled young people. Within a culture that continually seeks to assign fault and blame, they do not tend to be afforded the same levels of sympathy or empathy. However, these young people are vulnerable and can indeed be considered victims as much as perpetrators.

This article will focus on young people at the sharpest end of that spectrum; those who become involved in serious crime, usually by being “groomed” by gangs linked to organised crime.

Many (though not all) young offenders come from very difficult backgrounds. However, children who are coerced into this world become particularly vulnerable and educators have a pivotal role in protecting them.

At a conference I attended last year, Alex Urka, Birmingham’s serious and organised crime and gangs co-ordinator, said: “Serious and organised crime is a national security risk; a pervasive threat with a corrosive impact on communities.”

Alex’s presentation pointed out that this is the biggest threat that the UK economy currently faces – costing £37 billion in 2018 alone. This industry can include drug trafficking, human trafficking, cyber-crime, child sexual exploitation and money laundering. It tends to work on the coercion of vulnerable people into doing much of its dirty work, and children are prime targets.

Alex went on to describe how children can be manipulated into participating in organised crime. These young people may be escaping from situations where their needs are neglected and they feel unsafe. They could be suffering from domestic violence or other trauma. There is often an absence of a primary attachment figure (lack of a positive male role model is a common feature).

These children are often looking for someone to run to – and they run the wrong way.

Sometimes, the “wrong way” means an urban street gang. Some of these are affiliated with older criminals and organised crime groups who use them to distribute drugs (known as “county lines” – see SecEd, 2019a; NCA, 2019). They may also be ordered to carry and hide weapons, often in the homes of other vulnerable people which are then used as a base for drug dealing.

There is an insidious process of luring children into these gangs. At first, they might be invited to undertake a bit of “work” for what seems a harmless reward, e.g. food, gifts, money or accommodation. Class B drugs (e.g. cannabis) are often also supplied to the child as a hook.

Brainwashing and coercion through violence usually follow, until the young person is completely isolated and controlled through intimidation. These gangs are characterised by more extreme levels of violence than local gangs. Their victims have stumbled into a world where shootings, stabbings, the breaking and severing of limbs and other horrendous forms of violence are not uncommon.

If the child is caught by the police, their actions may have been made to look consensual so that they alone suffer the consequences, though the reality is starkly different.

Schools on the front line

If this is a national struggle, as Alex suggested, then schools and PRUs are on the front line. The children’s commissioner recently produced a report highlighting “extensive evidence linking school exclusions with gang involvement” and describing some alternative provision as “gang grooming grounds” (2019). The report calls for the Department for Education (DfE) to ensure that “schools realise the safeguarding implications of excluding children, and are held responsible for these” (see also SecEd, 2019b).

A report in October from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime said the rise in the number of young people who are carrying knives is particularly concerning. More than 17,500 boys aged 14 carry a knife or weapon in England and Wales.

The report includes reports of gangs who deliberately set out to engineer the exclusion of pupils – for example by giving them a knife to carry in school (APPG, 2019; SecEd, 2019c).

It is also true that children from most disadvantaged groups – not just children in care but also those with SEND, children in need and certain minority ethnic groups, for example – are disproportionately more likely to be excluded. For example, Gill et al (2017) found that it is the most vulnerable children who are likely to be excluded: one in two have a recognised mental health need, they are four times more likely to be from the poorest families, seven times more likely to have SEN, and three times more likely to be interacting with social services (see also SecEd, 2017). Pupils from certain ethnic backgrounds are also more likely to be excluded, including Gypsy/Roma, Irish Traveller and Black Caribbean (DfE, 2019a).

And as we have discussed, once they are excluded, the risk of gang involvement can increase exponentially.

As the virtual school head for children and young people in care in Wolverhampton, I am acutely aware of the vulnerabilities of this cohort in particular. Nationally, looked after children are five times more likely to be sanctioned for an offence than children in the general population in 2016 (Hewson, 2018).

Fewer than one per cent of all children in England are in care, but they make up around two-fifths of young people in secure training centres (38 per cent) and young offender institutions (42 per cent) (Hewson, 2018).

We know that these vulnerabilities put many looked after children, as well as other vulnerable groups such as children in need, at an increased risk of criminal exploitation.

However, while there is indeed a correlation, there is little evidence for a causal link between exclusions and serious crime. The connection is more complex, and part of a nexus of other societal factors such as poverty, inequality and pre-conceptions of certain minority groups.

Going back to young people with knife offences, for example, a high proportion had been excluded and/or were persistently absent from school. However, a high percentage are also eligible for free school meals (MoJ, 2018). Simply blaming schools for society’s problems cannot be the way forward.

Preventing exclusions

In a 2017 report, the West Midlands Commission on Gangs and Violence offered a more considered response: “Processes that lead to exclusion overlap with processes that encourage people to become involved with organised crime and violence. The aim is to understand what leads to exclusion, how exclusions are managed and what support is offered to the child and family once they have been excluded.” (Anderson, 2017)

As an educator, I would add that we must also go the extra mile to prevent them from getting excluded in the first place. Education is a major protective factor in the lives of disadvantaged youngsters. From 2016/17, as my role gradually expanded to include vulnerable learners more generally, I started working in closer partnership with the Youth Offending Team (YOT).

My involvement had come about because, despite its noted strengths in other areas, educational engagement was a problem for the YOT – in 2015, only about half of young offenders in the city had attended school regularly. If we were to protect and prevent more children from reoffending, we had to get them back into school.

In some cases, persistent absence or “school refusal” was the issue. In others, pupils had been excluded from school, sometimes for reasons that were linked to their offending behaviour outside school.
In helping schools to find alternatives to exclusion, the local authority’s role should be one of support and constructive challenge; setting high expectations and helping educators to properly assess need and risk, intervene early and deliver targeted interventions where they are most needed. So, education providers need to be working closely with other key agencies, such as the police, YOTs, SEND and preventative services, as well as parents and carers of course.

So, the YOT started strengthening its approach to improving educational engagement in its work with children and families, as well as being very proactive in reaching out to schools. Our model school policy for children in care was expanded to include pupils in the youth justice system, and the policy called for the existing statutory role of designated looked after children teacher to also encompass this wider cohort.

A new, dedicated YOT education officer then worked on building strong links with designated looked after children teachers and other safeguarding leads in secondary schools. An educational psychologist provides specialised input while my role continues to provide strategic support.

We hold a multi-agency Pupils not in Full-time Education panel each month, reviewing all young people who are not attending schools full-time, or whose engagement is slipping. A tight action plan is agreed in all such cases. In making those plans effective, having targets that are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-related) and close collaboration between professionals is critical. We hold ourselves, and each other, to account for those actions, as well as supporting each other.

In partnership with other children’s services such as educational psychology, we work to increase schools’ understanding of the barriers that some of their most vulnerable pupils face. That dual status that many young offenders hold – as both victims and perpetrators – is explored in training with school governors as well as staff.

This need for increased understanding is well supported by current research and national guidance. The DfE’s Keeping children safe in education statutory guidance (DfE, 2019b) includes the expectation that: “All staff should be aware of indicators, which may signal that children are at risk from, or involved with, serious violent crime (and) of the associated risks and understand the measures in place to manage these.”

Ofsted (2019) has also recognised the need for better collaboration, finding (in relation to knife crime) that “schools work effectively to keep their pupils safe, but they can be isolated from each other and other agencies, leading to inconsistencies in the way schools approach this issue”.

SLCN – a key barrier

Considering specific barriers, this cohort is characterised by statistically high levels of SEND, with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) being prevalent. The 2015 SEND reforms introduced new requirements around support for young offenders, but there is still an urgent need, in some cases, for more understanding and better support.

The Communication Trust estimates that at least 60 per cent of young people in the youth justice system have SLCN, compared to about 10 per cent of children generally. This has serious implications, both for youth offending teams and schools.

A 15-year-old with the listening and understanding skills of a seven-year old will obviously struggle to cope with a police interview or court appearance. A young person may breach the terms of their order simply because they don’t understand the language, or they may misunderstand the dates or times of their appointments or court appearances. It stands to reason that they are unlikely to fare any better with the layers of information in a GCSE textbook.

One of the particularities of SLCN is that people can become very skilled at masking their difficulties. Or, we might misinterpret their disengagement for belligerence (clear links have been made between SLCN and behavioural problems). Again, detailed and timely assessments, adaptation of curriculum delivery and flexibility with SEN resources can be critical to keeping these pupils engaged.

Research from the Communication Trust (2015) into the prevalence of SLCN in the youth justice system in England, found that professionals considered 30 per cent of their service users to have SLCN as their primary need. The most prevalent type of SLCN was identified as attending and listening to others, understanding what others say, and being able to communicate with others. Literacy was also identified as an area of need, with 46 per cent reporting reading and writing difficulties in their service users.

In response to such evidence, some YOTs have invested heavily in supporting SLCN. Durham, for instance, has adapted resources and processes to make them “communication friendly”, producing “Word Busters” and other tools to ensure that the complexities of the justice system are described in a language their young people can understand.

In Durham and Wolverhampton, among others, all young offenders are now screened for SLCN among other difficulties, the results informing their intervention plan.

In Wolverhampton, we have also invested heavily in training for staff in attachment awareness and trauma-informed practice, which is helping the team to promote restorative and relational approaches to challenging behaviour.

Again, many schools have also accessed this kind of training themselves, locally and nationally, which is helping teachers and school leaders to address many pupils’ difficulties with behaviour and emotional wellbeing.

A different attitude?

So, what has been the impact? In March 2015, 53 per cent of Wolverhampton’s school-aged offenders were attending education full-time (the national figure was 45 per cent). By 2018/19, this had risen to 76 per cent. School exclusions are falling and no Wolverhampton children in care were permanently excluded in the 2018/19 school year. This approach has highlighted that the needs of the most vulnerable children can only be understood through a range of perspectives, and met with a collaborative approach. Schools are instrumental in protecting vulnerable children from harm, but they should not be working in isolation.

This is not about being “soft” on crime. I understand the need for consequences and for headteachers to send a clear message to other students when behaviour policies are seriously breached.
But this is also about listening to young offenders, trying to understand the reasons behind their behaviour, and recognising their vulnerabilities as children and as victims as much as perpetrators. SecEd

  • Darren Martindale is service manager, vulnerable learners – encompassing the role of the virtual school head – at City of Wolverhampton Council. For his previous SecEd articles, see
    http://bit.ly/2p0yq8X

Further information & resources

  • Anderson: Commission on Gangs and Violence: Uniting to improve safety, West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, November 2017: http://bit.ly/31TUynT
  • APPG on Knife Crime: Back to school? Breaking the link between school exclusions and knife crime, October 2019: http://bit.ly/2US2p3O
  • Children’s Commissioner: Keeping kids safe: Improving safeguarding responses to gang violence and criminal exploitation, February 2019: http://bit.ly/2SWHg7r
  • The Communication Trust: The SEND reforms and SLCN in the Youth Justice Sector, 2015: http://bit.ly/38snS7p
  • The Communication Trust: For an overview of the charity’s youth justice work, visit http://bit.ly/2VtPupl
  • DfE: Permanent and fixed period exclusions in England: 2017-18, July 2019a: http://bit.ly/2Mpo1B9
  • DfE: Keeping children safe in education, September 2019b: http://bit.ly/2bI2Zsm
  • Gill et al: Making the Difference: Breaking the link between school exclusion and social exclusion, IPPR, October 2017: http://bit.ly/2vele71
  • Hewson: Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile, Prison Reform Trust, Autumn 2018: http://bit.ly/3a4Um83
  • Ministry of Justice: Examining the educational background of young knife possession offenders, June 2018: http://bit.ly/2SJ3t7v
  • National Crime Agency: County lines drug supply, vulnerability and harm 2018 January 2019: http://bit.ly/2PpUjvW
  • Ofsted: Knife crime: Safeguarding children and young people in education, March 2019: http://bit.ly/2VunDlc
  • SecEd: Drug gangs groom young children to run county lines, February 2019a: http://bit.ly/39x01DD
  • SecEd: Safeguarding warning over the 27,000 children involved in gang activity across England, March 2019b: http://bit.ly/2Hvy715
  • SecEd: MPs call for action to break link between knife crime and exclusions, October 2019c: http://bit.ly/2Hrga1m
  • SecEd: Thirty-five children a day are being permanently excluded, October 2017: http://bit.ly/2tVD65S


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