Anne Longfield blogs: As schools return, the cost-of-living crisis must not become another opportunity for those who groom and exploit vulnerable children

Over the next few days, millions of children in England will be returning to school after the summer holidays. But we also know that thousands of children will be missing from school, some of them for weeks and months on end. Nearly 100,000 children in England were severely absent during the autumn term last year, and of those missing, many are the most vulnerable children. And as the energy bill crisis hits schools this autumn, the funds needed to provide the support these young people need to return to school are likely to become harder to find.

Since our launch last year, the Commission on Young Lives has been highlighting some of the ways in which vulnerable children can fall through gaps in the care, education, and health systems, and become victims of criminal and/or sexual exploitation, serious violence, and involved in the criminal justice system. Life chances are being diminished, and in the worst cases, lives are being lost.

Time and again I have heard professionals who work with children and families express their concerns about the thousands of children who are rarely attending school. Too often they are the young people most at risk of being groomed and coerced by abusers and criminals. Too often they end up leaving school without even the most basic qualifications.

Earlier this year, I met a school leader who told me about her student, Michael, a 15-year-old who was due in court after stabbing another teenager. His childhood has been tough. His Mum is an alcoholic and his home life is chaotic. His attendance at school became increasingly sporadic during his teens, and the Covid lockdowns did not help.

Being out of school made Michael vulnerable to his local gang, and he spent hours hanging around on his estate, where he was slowly groomed by older gang members. He was given a sense of status he didn't feel he had at home or school. He had a bit of money for the first time. He felt popular and nobody was judging him.

Before long though, he was told that he owed the gang money, and that the cash and the gifts he had received weren't free. He was pressured and threatened into carrying drugs for the gang. Then he was told he had to deliver drugs onto another gang's territory. A friend in the gang told him to carry a knife for his own safety, and a few weeks later, while he has delivering drugs, Michael stabbed another boy. He says it was in self-defence.

Michael's story - or variants of it - is one that those working with young offenders and victims of exploitation will hear all the time. While not attending school isn't always the trigger point for these young people, not being in school so often puts them at greater risk of harm. Beyond the disruption to routine and their education, non-attendance also takes away what should be a protective environment in their lives. It is telling that nine of out ten of young offenders sentenced to custody have had a previous record of being persistently absent from school. And of course, every extra day a child misses from school lowers their chances of achieving 5 or more good GCSEs. Some children are even encouraged to get suspended by their exploiters to make them more available and so there are fewer people looking out for them.

I know many schools are more conscious than ever about the need to get these vulnerable children into school, and there are some excellent campaigns across the country stressing the importance of children returning to school after the summer break.  Long term work with families, support for children with additional and special needs, and long-term engagement support are all a vital part of the process of encouraging all children back into school - and keeping them there. Supporting vulnerable children to succeed in school takes long term commitment and it is not likely to be made any easier by the enormous pressures on school budgets and resources as energy price rises bite.

The cost-of-living crisis is already putting extra pressure on family finances, particularly those living in poverty or struggling to avoid it. The secondary consequences of crisis, of the kind we saw during Covid and lockdown - a rise in parental mental health problems, domestic violence, and addiction - will also add to the stresses on some families, and inevitably some children. As our recent report into children's mental health services set out, even before the post-Covid impact on children's mental health, services were already not capable of meeting demand.

I know that government, councils, and schools are all acutely aware there is a serious problem with severe absence, and of the risks it can bring to children's futures. New and more regular data collection methods, improved monitoring, and other policy innovations are being looked at and introduced to help tackle the problem. This is all very welcome. But I believe it must happen alongside immediate support now for school budgets, and for the most vulnerable families who are facing a catastrophic financial squeeze.

We know many of the problems around severe absence and children falling through gaps in the education system existed long before Covid and the current economic difficulties. Yet the cost-of-living crisis, and the strains it will put on young people, families, and those services that support them, will be ruthlessly exploited by the criminals who are so good at spotting new opportunities to grow their business.

As well as the immediate help that is urgently needed, these in-grained, generational problems require long-term, national solutions - a more inclusive school system, modernised and well-funded treatment and support for children's mental health problems, a reformed care system, a wider network of early and sustained family help, and a mission from the top of government to defeat the scourge of child poverty.

The outgoing Prime Minister once promised to 'bite the head off the snake' of county lines. As he leaves office, the snake's head is still there. The new occupant of No10 must be more ambitious about protecting vulnerable children and do all they can to prevent the cost-of-living crisis becoming another opportunity for those who want to groom and exploit them.

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