The former children’s commissioner says the authorities are unprepared for a sharp rise in exclusions
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Guardian
Ministers are completely unprepared to deal with the sharp rise in exclusions, and the subsequent exploitation of thousands of children, that could happen post-pandemic, the former children’s commissioner has said. In a stark warning about the potential number of children who have fallen ‘off grid’ since the start of the pandemic, Anne Longfield said that tens of thousands more children could be exploited by gangs and criminals because the state had failed to keep track of them.
In an interview with The Observer, she said she was concerned that a rise in the number of children apparently home-schooled during the pandemic would also put significantly more children at risk. “Tens of thousands of kids could be in this situation,” she said. “We’re way away from there being any kind of mainstream response. We’ve had the prime minister talk about how he was going to ‘bite the head off’ county lines gangs – this year, I think he was going to ‘throttle the life out of them’.
“I’m pleased he’s noticed they’re there, and there’s a bit of money in the government’s crime plan, but it’s not of the scale needed. We’re making it too easy for criminals to exploit these kids.”
In autumn 2020 the number of pupils who were absent more than they were present rose by over 30,000. The most recent figures examining children regarded as being in need, who were already being monitored by social services, found a 34% year-on-year increase in incidents in which gangs were identified as a factor. There were also large increases in episodes in which drug misuse by a child (23%) and trafficking (21%) were identified.
Money going in?
A government spokesperson said more than £45m had recently been invested to fund specialist teams – in both mainstream schools and alternative provision – helping young people who were at risk of involvement in violence to re-engage in education. They also cited a £7m fund to set up a charitable network helping vulnerable children, and the £200m Youth Endowment fund, designed to prevent young people from becoming involved in violence. They said £130.5m would be available over the coming year to tackle the root causes of violent crime.
“Keeping the most vulnerable children safe is at the heart of our work, and this government is already investing millions in the frontline charities directly supporting them, as well as investing in early-intervention programmes to help stop young people from being drawn into violence,” said the spokesperson.
Longfield revealed she was undertaking an independent commission with Oasis Charitable Trust, which runs 52 schools across the country in disadvantaged areas, to examine the scale of the problem and come up with ways to cut the number of children used “as a commodity” by gangs. “For some months now, charities have been telling me that the drugs market is booming,” Longfield said. “We also know there’s a high number of kids that haven’t returned to school on a normal basis. We’re now looking at almost 100,000 kids who have schooling severely disrupted.
“We’ve also had a huge increase in the number of kids who are home-schooled. Some of that is believed to be families who are worried about their kids going back to school because of health reasons but, again, it’s kids off the grid. Clearly, when kids are meant to go back into school, that will be a point of shock. Charities are warning when Ofsted start inspecting again, that will be the point where more exclusions happen; we know that’s a trigger point for kids becoming more at risk.”
She said she had already come across “intolerable” living conditions with four siblings sharing a bed, and charities reporting increased rates of domestic violence and referrals for food poverty, as well as children and their families who had taken their own lives.