Hilary Armstrong on the need for a new national plan of action to support vulnerable teenagers
The Commission on Young Lives, chaired by the former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield CBE, published its final report in November 2022, ‘Hidden In Plain Sight: A national plan of action to support vulnerable teenagers to succeed and to protect them from adversity, exploitation, and harm’.
The report reveals how some of the most vulnerable children and young people are not receiving the support and help they need to keep safe and to thrive. It warns that a failure to tackle deep-rooted problems in the children’s social care, education, family support, children’s mental health, and criminal justice systems is exposing some of the most vulnerable children to county lines, gangs, and criminal activity.
At present in our country, there are primary school children joining criminal gangs, teenagers attacking each other with knives and machetes, homes where children involved in the drugs trade are the main breadwinner, and communities where organised crime groups seek out and groom very vulnerable children – almost with impunity. This is happening in the most deprived communities, but also spreading to suburbs and rural areas.
Recent government statistics show 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 also 11,600 instances involving gangs and 10,140 where Child Criminal Exploitation was a factor.
Those involved in gang activity and criminal exploitation are disproportionately young, vulnerable, and unknown to services, so these numbers are likely the tip of the iceberg. 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 Youth Endowment Fund has estimated 39% of young people have been involved in or witnessed violence – a number that increases with disadvantage.
The report also describes the existing stresses on over-stretched services and the public purse due to a lack of early intervention, and a combination of a pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis, and austerity are a gift to those who exploit children. A recent NAO study also argued that government funding has not been coordinated to tackle these problems.
The Commission on Young Lives proposes a new national action plan, beginning with a call on the government to recognise the scale of the threat and hold COBRA-style meetings to drive change. It says responsibility for all young people policy should move to a renamed Department for Children, Schools, and Families, and proposes a Child Poverty Unit to tackle this key driver of child vulnerability.
It recommends a one-off mental health recovery programme and urges Ministers to deliver the reforms proposed in the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. It also sets out plans for an army of youth practitioners to inspire and support young people; and for all school buildings to be opened before and after school, at weekends, and during holidays to provide safe and appealing places for teenagers.
The report calls for a new era of inclusive education, tackling the problem of school exclusions, extending SEN support to keep children in school and learning, and putting a greater focus on nurture and therapeutic support for vulnerable children, along with a new Ofsted inclusion measure.
It proposes a new Sure Start Plus Programme - for teenagers. Placed initially in deprived areas, this would be a mechanism for bringing services together and providing bespoke help for families and children who need it. This would be part of the fabric of a community, offering help for young people and families – through parenting classes or mental health support – and closely linked into the education system. Established in and around schools, these hubs would be run by charities, public bodies, business, and philanthropic organisations.
Many of these issues were clear to the Lords’ Select Committee that I have had the privilege of chairing, the Public Services Committee, in our report last year on Vulnerable Children. There is now a growing political consensus that the current system is failing thousands of teenagers. Translating that agreement into a national plan of action is the next step, but it is urgent, and the government needs to reflect that urgency in its response.
Baroness Hilary Armstrong of Hill Top is a Labour Peer, former Cabinet Minister, and the current Chair of the House of Lords’ Public Services Select Committee
Published 23rd January 2023