Gangs and sexual exploitation: Alert as school referrals plummet

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Tens of thousands of children are at risk of either gang involvement or sexual exploitation at a time when school-based referrals to social services have fallen by a third.

The fall in referrals is down to the Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions on school attendance. However, it means that thousands of children are slipping through the net with the numbers being classified as in need or given child protection plans at their lowest levels for years.

The latest children in need figures published by the government (DfE, 2021) cover the year to March 2021.

They show that total referrals to social services are down by seven per cent at 597,760. This has been driven by a 31 per cent fall in school referrals. This represents a drop of around 36,000 school referrals – from 117,010 in pre-Covid 2019/20 to 81,180 in 2020/21 when there were two school lockdowns.

As a result, there are now 388,490 children in need (the lowest level since 2013) and 50,010 child protection plans in place (the lowest level since 2015).

The three most common factors identified during assessment remain the same as in previous years: domestic violence (168,960), concerns about the mental health of the child’s parent/carer (157,600), and emotional abuse (107,140).

However, the figures also reveal that 12,720 children in England were identified as being at risk of criminal exploitation by gangs. And there were 16,830 children where child sexual exploitation was a factor, with 2,710 children where trafficking was a factor.

The former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield has warned this week that the impact of Covid lockdowns is “still boosting those who target vulnerable teenagers for criminal or sexual exploitation”.

Ms Longfield is chairing the new Commission on Young Lives, an independent year-long project looking at how to develop a national plan to divert vulnerable children away from gangs and serious violence.

Gang and other exploitation were a regular focus for Ms Longfield during her time as children’s commissioner. She warned more than once that school exclusions were often the trigger for gang exploitation and called for more to be done to reduce exclusions.

Her last children’s commissioner report on the topic, in February this year, said: “Exclusion is a well recognised risk factor for gang-involvement and children tell us that being excluded from school was often the trigger for their involvement in criminal activity.”

The same report warned that an estimated one in 25 – or 120,000 – teens were falling through gaps in the education and social care system and remained at risk of exploitation.

Speaking this week in response to the children in need figures, Ms Longfield said: “The number of children being referred to social services because of fears of gang exploitation is extremely troubling and likely only the tip of the iceberg. During a period when the country was in lockdown twice, thousands of vulnerable children were still being sucked into gangs, serious violence and crime or sexually exploited.

“I am particularly worried about the very sharp drop in referrals during the two school lockdowns. Even though schools were open for vulnerable children, many did not attend, and it is very concerning that many have dropped off the radar since.

“We need to ask why we are still losing thousands of marginalised teenagers to the ruthless criminals who are so adept at spotting and exploiting vulnerable children and how we can find better solutions to stop it from happening. It is clear these problems are not going to solve themselves and we are still giving too many abusers and exploiters a free pass to use and harm children.

“The systems that are supposed to be there to help vulnerable children are under pressure and badly need reforming. It is time to find new ways of bringing hope and success to young people who fall through the gaps and end up in danger.”


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