Reducing school exclusions key to tackling youth violence and criminal gang exploitation

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

Children as young as 10 are being dragged into criminal exploitation, county lines and gang activity, with school exclusion a major trigger for vulnerable young people. The children’s commissioner is calling for a reduction in school exclusions to be a key goal if we are to reduce levels of youth violence. Pete Henshaw reports

A “vast majority” of local authorities still do not have a grip on youth violence in their areas, with many not even tracking local school exclusions – a key risk factor for gang exploitation.

In 2019/20, 14,700 children were referred to children’s services with identified concerns about gangs – a disturbing rise of 124 per cent from 2016/17.

However, in a new report, the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has warned that 120,000 teenagers – one in 25 – are falling through gaps in the education and social care system and remain at greater risk of exploitation.

Children as young as 10 are still being dragged into criminal exploitation and county lines drug running activities, the report warns, yet a lack of national data and poor coordination between different agencies remains a significant problem.

The report has a distinct sense of déjà vu, coming two years after Ms Longfield estimated that there were around 27,000 children at high risk of gang exploitation who had not been identified by services.

In this report, Ms Longfield warns the threat of gang exploitation shows no sign of abating and says that Covid-19 is set to make this situation worse, pointing, for example, to a 12 per cent drop in children’s services referrals in November alone.

The report states: “During the current lockdown, police report that away from the watchful eyes of teachers, bored and lonely children are increasingly at risk in parks and takeaways, with predators waiting to pounce.”

She adds that criminal gangs are constantly evolving their operations and methods. She says, therefore, that we must tackle the underlying vulnerabilities that lead children to become at risk of exploitation rather than “responding to the particular form the gang are taking at one particular time”.

However, since the 2019 report, factors relating to gang violence have continued to rise. In 2018/19, 7,894 children were permanently excluded from school (174 more than in 2016/17). Police also recorded 7,354 “missing episodes” for children.

The report concludes that thousands of vulnerable children will remain at risk because many local health bodies are simply not recognising youth violence as a public health issue.

Local authorities, she says, do not have a “cogent strategy” to reduce risk factors for vulnerable children.

The report states: “Most were not tracking local school exclusions – widely acknowledged as a trigger for a significant escalation of risk for children. Drug misuse is also a key risk factor for gang exploitation, however the numbers of children accessing drug treatment has fallen by 41 per cent nationally.

“Most local authorities are missing opportunities to identify some of the most at-risk children and ensure appropriate services are in place to prevent harm.

“Only one in four local authorities were tracking some risks more closely associated with exploitation – such as school exclusion; being outside mainstream education; going missing; experiencing substance misuse; living with a family member convicted of an offence.”

The report continues: “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 government’s proposals for reform of the alternative provision sector in education must focus on making exclusion a last resort, improve the quality of alternative provision, ensure routes back into mainstream schooling are strengthened and increase accountability on providers for the destinations of children excluded from mainstream settings.”

The situation is made more difficult to tackle because “there is no comprehensive, national data establishing the number of children who are victims of criminal exploitation”, the report adds.

The report praises the government’s funding of £35 million for violence reduction units (VRUs) but says that more focus must be placed on the need for agencies to adopt both a safeguarding and public health response across the country, working in partnership with local police.

When it comes to schools, the report suggests that funding is needed for schools to stay open at evenings and weekends and throughout school holidays, to provide a range of activities. It adds: “Investment is also needed in high quality support from youth workers able to work with children at risk in their communities.”

As well as safeguarding referrals, schools also play a key role in preventative work: “Schools should be utilised in the efforts to prevent serious youth violence. Some good preventative work is already taking place in schools – for example through drug awareness education. The full potential of schools in delivering other types of preventative interventions – such as sports clubs – should be explored.”

Other recommendations include a national drugs strategy for children and specific public health funding for local authorities to deal with criminal exploitation and serious violence.

Ms Longfield said: “Predators who seek to exploit children for financial gain will use sophisticated methods to target, groom and coerce children. They are ruthless in their efforts to keep children in their thrall, subjecting them to unspeakable abuse, threats and intimidation. If intervention comes when children are already entangled in these dangerous enterprises, it is difficult to reach them.

“To keep children safe, the response to youth violence must be a national priority across policing, public health and children’s services. We need equally strong national leadership in each of these three fields, backed up by local partnership working. This is the only way to fully implement a genuine public health approach across the country.

“Tragically, until there is this joined up public health response to gangs that identifies and helps all those children at risk as early as possible, teenagers will keep dying on our streets.”

The report’s findings have been echoed by The Children’s Society, which warns that it is often the child victims of criminal exploitation who are arrested rather than those grooming them.

The charity’s research has also found that two-third of councils do not have strategies in place to address child criminal exploitation.

Policy manager Iryna Pona said: “What is needed is a stronger focus on prevention and early help for children and families to address issues and challenges in children’s lives that leave them vulnerable to exploitation. These include everything from neglect, domestic abuse and poverty, to learning disabilities, mental health issues and being excluded from school. Some of these have been heightened by successive lockdowns, with children hidden from view of professionals like teachers and social workers.”

It comes as The Children’s Society has launched an initiative which will see professionals supporting the parents and carers of children who have been exploited into county lines.

A survey published by the charity and involving 2,000 parents of 10 to 16-year-olds found that 42 per cent did not understand the term “county lines”. The new support professionals will help parents and carers to understand exploitation, including county lines, spot the warning signs, and improve communication with their children. There will also be peer support groups.


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