Commission on Young Lives publishes its final report

Final report from Anne Longfield's Commission on Young Lives calls on Government to lead the fight back through 'Sure Start Plus', a national plan to prevent teenagers becoming involved in criminal exploitation, gangs, and serious violence

Anne Longfield CBE, Chair of the Commission on Young Lives, is today publishing her year-long Commission's final report, '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 Commission's report proposes a new 'Sure Start Plus for Teenagers' network of intervention and support as the centrepiece of a wide range of recommendations to government, the police, schools, and others to tackle the deep-rooted problems in the children's social care, education, family support, children's mental health, and criminal justice systems.

The Commission warns that the failure of these systems to protect some of the most vulnerable children is allowing criminals and abusers to groom thousands of young people in England into county lines, gangs, and criminal activity.

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.

The Commission proposes a new national action plan to protect those most at risk of exploitation and harm and to support all young people to leave education with improved life chances. This would mainstream some the positive work of Violence Reduction Units, who are working with agencies in some hotspot areas now.

Its recommendations include:

  • Introducing a new Sure Start Plus programme - a Sure Start for Teenagers. A universal offer that is placed initially in the areas of greatest need and is a mechanism for bringing local services together and providing bespoke services for families and children who need it. The Commission has chosen to incorporate the name 'Sure Start' as it is a well-recognised and well-respected programme, which it believes was a mistake to dismantle.
  • Setting an ambitious 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.
  • Recognising the crisis of teenage harm and violence is a national threat and is made a national priority by the Prime Minister. A national strategy to reduce risk should be drawn up and delivered, and monthly COBRA-style meetings held to drive and monitor progress. Responsibility for all young people policy goes to a renamed Department for Children, Schools and Families with leadership at Cabinet level.
  • Helping young people and their families out of poverty beginning with the uprating of family benefits in line with inflation, ending the two-child benefit cap, and the extension of free school meals to all families receiving Universal Credit. Re-establishing a Child Poverty Unit tasked with reducing and then ending child poverty to level up opportunities and life chances to all communities.
  • A one-off mental health recovery programme, financed in part by a levy on social media companies and mobile phone providers. Young people should be guaranteed mental health treatment from Children and Young People's Mental Health Services in 4 weeks, with a guarantee of next day emergency treatment for young people at risk of self-harm and suicide. Accelerate the rollout of mental health teams in schools in the two thirds of remaining schools who do not have provision and introduce a new programme of social prescription.
  • A national mission to identify and remove racial bias in the systems that are currently failing many Black, Brown and Minority Ethnic children. The disproportionate numbers of Black boys in the youth justice system and in every part of the social care landscape is shocking. The Commission agrees with the Lammy Review recommendation to 'explain or reform' racial disparities in the youth justice system and believes it should be applied to other systems that are responsible for keeping children safe and improving children's lives.
  • Introducing a new "Family First" approach in government and local agencies to build and strengthen the capacity of, and resilience of, families with vulnerable teenagers. This would include a bespoke scheme led by the Department for Children, Families and Schools, within the Government's existing 'Supporting Families' programme, specifically targeted at families with teenagers, and would be delivered through Sure Start Plus hubs or schools.
  • Reforming the children's social care system, including implementing the MacAlister recommendations, funding more new local children's homes and specialist youth foster carers, and encouraging the expansion of kinship care.
  • Recruiting an army of Youth Practitioners to inspire, support and guide young people in their community, administered by a collaboration of national charities. The Commission believes an additional 10,000 youth practitioners are required. They would integrate with pastoral staff in school and youth justice teams to provide universal and specialist support.
  • Opening all school buildings before and after school, at weekends and during holidays, to provide safe and appealing places for teenagers, staffed by community groups, youth practitioners and volunteers and financed by funds from dormant bank accounts and National Lottery community funding.
  • Encouraging a new era of inclusive education, ending the culture of exclusion in schools, and helping all children to succeed. Support primary schools to end exclusions in all primaries by 2024 extend SEN support, a greater focus on nurture and therapeutic support for vulnerable children, a new 'inclusion measure' to inform Ofsted judgements, and the scrapping of Pupil Referral Units with specialist provision established in and around schools instead.
  • Reforming the youth justice system to accelerate moves towards a fully welfare-based, trauma-informed Child First approach. Aim to replace Youth Offender Institutions with secure schools and secure children's homes. Introduce a statutory definition of Child Criminal Exploitation.

 Anne Longfield CBE, Chair of the Commission on Young Lives, 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.

"A combination of Covid, the cost of living crisis, a possible return to austerity, and the legacy of underfunded and overstretched service will only increase these existing pressures on many vulnerable families and children. It is a gift to those whose aim is to exploit children.

"This final report is our call to action. We are proposing a new national network called Sure Start Plus - a Sure Start for Teenagers. We believe it can offer a joined-up, national programme to enable local communities  to protect and support teenagers at risk, as well as their families, and it can boost the life chances and educational prospects of children in England.

"After a decade of running-down early help programmes and youth services, a return to investing in children and their families is desperately needed. I make no excuse for arguing for a significant increase in funding for vulnerable children, or for arguing children and families should be placed at the heart of government policy making, whichever party is in power and whatever the economic circumstances. Investment now will save money and save lives in the future.

"Over the last decade of unprecedented change and turmoil in their lives, we have frequently taken our eye off the ball for young people, particularly the most vulnerable. It shows in the crises that so many are now facing.

"It is time to make amends and create a new environment that keeps children safe from exploitation and harm and which boosts the chances of success for every child."

Rev. Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis, which hosts the Commission on Young Lives, said:

"'Hidden in Plain Sight' is a shocking report which shines a light on the gaps in an array of the vital systems - social care, education, family support, mental health - whose job it is to protect every young life. It exposes the cracks. They are not joined up, they have become overly top down, they are underfunded and overstretched. It uncovers just how hard it is to recognise, let alone respond in a transformational way, to the cries of the most vulnerable children, young people and parents, who most need their support.

"I am not at all surprised by the findings of the Commission's report. My day-by-day work in local communities - some of them amongst the most socio-economically deprived in the country - means that its pages simply echo the lived reality of many of the children that I am all too familiar with.

"'Hidden in Plain Sight' is not simply a map of the current terrain but also a compass that points the route to a different future. It is a timely document filled with hope for those with the power and enough courage to listen and begin to enact its recommendations."

A copy of the report is available here.

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