Heading north for a family funeral I had stuffed my rather stylish new handbag with reports I hadn’t had time to read. The first, a cross-sector (heads’ associations, Chartered College and suchlike) legal advisory briefing on gender issues in schools was a fine piece, detailed and helpful. I shall keep it to hand.
The second was the excellent and extremely depressing final report from former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield's Commission on Young Lives 'Hidden in Plain Sight: A national plan of action to support vulnerable teenagers to succeed and to protect them from adversity, exploitation and harm'. It's quite long but I think everyone ought to read it. This blog therefore is a bit of a precis, with the added bonus of Roberts’ General Asperity.
Government statistics published last week reveal that in 2021/22 there were over 16,000 instances in England where child sexual exploitation was identified by local authorities as a factor at the end of an assessment by social workers. There were 11,600 instances where gangs were a factor and 10,140 instances where Child Criminal Exploitation was a factor. These numbers are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. Those involved in gang activity and criminal exploitation are disproportionately young, vulnerable, and unknown to services. It has been estimated that there could be as many as 200,000 children in England aged 11 to 17 who are vulnerable to serious violence. The report says there are already huge stresses on over-stretched services and the public purse due to a lack of early intervention, and that a combination of Covid, a cost-of-living crisis, and any return to austerity would be a gift to those who exploit children. Over the last year, the Commission has heard from multiple professionals working with vulnerable children that many of these problems have become more extreme since the pandemic, including the ages of those running gangs becoming even younger. It has also heard countless examples of children from suburban, middle-class England being groomed by criminals who have spotted a vulnerability and moved in with clinical ruthlessness.
Notably, clearly and sensibly, Anne Longfield (with whom I have not always agreed) said:
There are parts of our country where the state is completely failing in its duty to protect vulnerable children from the ongoing epidemic of county lines, criminal exploitation, and serious violence. This is a problem hidden in plain sight, rocket-boosted by Covid, which is disproportionately affecting teenagers in deprived and minority ethnic communities and also some families living in leafy suburbs.
It is a national threat to our country's prosperity and security, a threat which is ruining lives and scarring communities, and which is costing the NHS, schools, the police and criminal justice system, and the children's social care system billions of pounds every year.
- The Prime Minister recognises the national threat to prosperity and security by the scourge of serious violence, criminal exploitation, and harm and convenes regular COBRA meetings to tackle the root causes of these problems. The Children’s Minister of State should attend Cabinet.
- The Department of Education returns to its previous incarnation of Children, Schools, and Families, reflecting the central importance of thriving children and families as part of delivering a world class education system.
- The Government establishes a new Sure Start Plus Programme, a “Sure Start for Teenagers” network of intervention and support that reduces the risks vulnerable young people face and encourages them to thrive. ‘We have chosen to incorporate the name Sure Start as it is a well-recognised and well-respected programme, which we believe was a mistake to dismantle.’ [Not half, say I]
- The Government sets a target of 1,000 Sure Start Plus Hubs by 2027 to co-ordinate and deliver health and education support for vulnerable teenagers. Established in and around schools, the hubs will be run by charities, public bodies, business, and philanthropy organisations.
- A new drive across Government to reduce and eventually eliminate child poverty, including the re-establishment of a Child Poverty Unit in Whitehall.
- The Government leads a national mission to identify and remove racial bias in the systems that are currently failing many Black, Brown and Minority Ethnic children.
- The Government takes a new “Family First” approach that supports families with children at risk of becoming involved with gangs, serious violence, or criminal exploitation and which prevents crisis, financed through the implementation of Children’s Social Care reforms, and delivered by local authorities and family organisations.
- Reform of the children’s social care system to provide high quality care for all teenagers, taking an invest-to-save approach and delivered by a partnership of Government, local authorities and the third sector. Implementation of the Independent Review into Children’s Social Care recommendations delivered at pace.
- The recruitment of an army of Youth Practitioners to inspire, support and guide young people in their community, financed by funds from the proceeds of crime and administered by a collaboration of national charities.
- Opening all secondary school buildings before and after school, at weekends and during holidays, to provide safe and appealing places for teenagers, financed by funds from dormant bank accounts and National Lottery community funding.
- The Government to promote a new era of inclusive education, ending the culture of exclusion and helping all children to succeed in their education.
- One-off £1bn children and young people’s mental health recovery programme, part-financed by a levy on social media companies and mobile phone providers.
- Reform the youth justice system to accelerate moves towards a fully welfare based, trauma-informed Child First approach.
To my mind, these proposals are absolutely excellent and should be enacted at once. Youth work is always the first to go under revisionist government, and we’ve had 12 years without it now. The Cabinet’s not short of what we now coyly call ‘high net worth individuals’. Perhaps they could prime the philanthropy for 3 and 4?
Back on the train, I was heading for Cambridgeshire and reading fast. I thought of another vision for education, that of Henry Morris and the Cambridgeshire Village Colleges from the 1920s onwards. He determined that everyone, no matter how poor, should have access to good education in an inspiring setting. The village colleges were secondary schools and community facilities at the same time, focal points in villages where people of all ages came to learn, mix, be entertained and even get babies weighed. Henry Morris didn’t just create village colleges that were big schools – he created community education. Community education where everyone was in it together, where the whole village raised the children and support each other throughout their lives. When I was offering my skills in Leics in the eighties, their Community Colleges had the same vision.
So what have we now? Narrow education behind locked gates, for safety. Education at which many must fail to keep allegedly elite standards high while the country is run by the 7% who went to fee-paying schools and where a mere millionaire just isn’t trying hard enough. Where a known bully and incompetent can be promoted again and again, knighted for his services to the destruction of trust and integrity in public life: obviously a perfect person to be Secretary of State for Education at the time of the biggest increase in child poverty in modern times. I apologise for writing light-heartedly about such a one in blogs passim.
But finally, the advert. As I arranged my affairs, discovered I had only one contact lens and no charging plug for the Great Northern Electrostar making irregular terrifying banging noises upon which I travelled, I read the wall. There was a government poster about sexual harassment in the workplace, showing some concerned citizens saying what they would do to stop it. Good stuff, though not nearly as good as the Scottish That Guy campaign. But it was the sign-off that got me.
HM Government say ‘If you think it's wrong, act on it’.
Tell that to Anne Longfield and the 200,000 terrified children, Rishi.