On 26 January 2023, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate a motion from Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Labour) to take note of the report by the Commission on Young Lives ‘Hidden in plain sight’, and the life chances and educational prospects of vulnerable teenagers.

1. What was the Commission on Young Lives?

The Commission on Young Lives was launched in September 2021 to “fight back” with “coordinated national action” against those who exploit and groom children. The aim of the commission was to design a new national system to “prevent crisis in vulnerable young people and to support them to succeed in life”.

The commission was chaired by Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner for England. It was hosted and supported by the Oasis Charitable Trust, which is a national charity that focuses on “sustainable and holistic” community development. It was also funded by the Passion Project Foundation. The commission described the foundation as a “social impact aggregator and investor into social impact”.

The panel of commissioners included people with experience in communities, in services and in government. It included Baroness Louise Casey, a former senior government official and adviser on issues such as homelessness, anti-social behaviour and vulnerable people. The role of the panel was to “guide and inform the work” of the commission. It was established to meet four times throughout the year and to provide advice. In addition, the commissioners were invited to participate in evidence sessions with expert witnesses.

In drawing up its recommendations, the commission held regular discussions with central and local government officials and with politicians. It visited schools and colleges, local authorities, children’s centres, communities and youth projects. It took evidence from youth workers, social workers, the NHS, the police, police and crime commissioners, directors of children’s services, charities and community groups, and from experts in the field of education, the care system, children’s mental health and family support.

The commission published its final report in November 2022. It set out a policy framework and the “scale of investment needed to support vulnerable children and their families”. The commission said the recommendations made in the report were “ambitious” but “achievable”.

The final report brought together four thematic reports which the commission published during its tenure. The thematic reports focused on:

2. What did the commission find?

The commission found that thousands of children were growing up “living very vulnerable lives”. It stated:

Every year, hundreds of the most vulnerable fall off the radar of the education and social services system, putting them at increased risk of criminal or sexual exploitation and making them more likely to become caught up in the criminal justice system. Their chances of entering adulthood with positive opportunities and choices are low and as adults they are more likely to be seen in our prisons or suffering from serious mental health problems or homelessness.

The commission said that the problem had been made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The commission argued there were parts of the country where the state was “failing in its duty” to protect vulnerable children. It said that this particularly affected those that were already the most marginalised families; they were often “Black, Brown and Minority Ethnic” and they were often poor. The commission said it was “impossible to overestimate” how important a driver poverty was for so many of the social problems in Britain.

However, the commission said the risk to vulnerable children of county lines, criminal exploitation and serious violence was not limited to the most deprived parts of inner-city Britain. The commission was presented with evidence of children from suburban, middle-class England being “groomed by criminals who have spotted vulnerability” and “moved in with clinical ruthlessness”. The commission argued that those who exploit children are “nimble” and on the “cutting edge of technology”, which it said was in “stark contrast” to the state’s “box-ticking” system. The commission argued that the system surrounded vulnerable children with “ten or more different professionals, none of them taking a lead or building a trusted relationship with the child”.

The commission warned that the “mixture of Covid, a cost of living crisis, a possible return to austerity”, and the legacy of an “underfunded and overstretched service” was so “toxic” it could only increase the pressure on many vulnerable families and children. The commission argued this would be a “gift” to those whose aim was to exploit children.

Alongside looking at how to protect vulnerable children who were at risk of exploitation and harm, the commission also examined proposals for change to boost the “life chances and educational prospects” of vulnerable teenagers.

It found that a fifth of young people were leaving education without “even the most basic qualifications”, and that the attainment gap between the most and least deprived students was growing again. The commission described this as a “national disgrace”. It found that many children were being excluded from school, removed from the school roll, or ‘manage-moved’ around the education system and then left to “sink” in “poor quality and underfunded alternative provision (AP)”. The government describes AP settings as places that provide education for children who cannot go to a mainstream school. Local authorities may arrange AP for a child for reasons such as exclusion, to improve behaviour off-site, or because of illness.

The commission said it found evidence of systems and services that were over-stretched, not trusted, “simply unable to meet the demands” of the many vulnerable children and “unable to stop them falling through the gaps”. The commission described as a “historic mistake” the “austerity programme […] ten years ago” on early help programmes and youth services.

3. What did the commission recommend?

The commission stated that its recommendations put forward “ambitious, practical, affordable” proposals that the government, councils, police, social services and communities could put in place. Its aim was to develop a new settlement that prevented vulnerable youths falling into violence, exploitation and the criminal justice system, and to support all young children to leave education with improved life chances.

The commission said that it had taken a public health approach. A public health approach typically focuses on health, safety and wellbeing. It is often multi-agency and involves different services working together. It looks for short and long-term solutions using data and evidence. The commission said its public health approach focused on prevention, inclusion and building supportive relationships.

As well as a series of recommendations to reform the social care system, education system, youth services and mental health services, the commission made several recommendations for reform within central government.

The following sections outline some of the commission’s key recommendations.

3.1 Leadership in government

The commission said the crisis of teenage harm and violence should be recognised as a national threat. It recommended the government draw up and deliver a national strategy and hold monthly COBRA meetings to drive and monitor progress.

It also called for the Department for Education to become the Department for Children, Schools and Families again to reflect the “central importance of thriving children’s welfare and family support to educational success”. The purpose would be to bring all work and policies on young people into one department to give strategic direction. The commission argued that, currently, national government was muddled and uncoordinated in its policies for young people, with no single department taking responsibility. The commission said the children’s minister role should be upgraded to minister of state level, and that they should attend cabinet.

3.2 Sure start plus programme

The commission said its “centrepiece” recommendation was for the government to set up a new “sure start plus” programme. It proposed a “sure start for teenagers” network that was universal and placed initially in areas of greatest need. The commission said the programme would be a way of bringing services together and providing bespoke services for families and children who needed it. The commission said the programme should be run from a new joint children, schools and families department and a Department of Health unit.

The commission said it chose to use the name “sure start” because it was a well-recognised and respected programme.

The commission called for the government to set a target to deliver sure start plus hubs in and around 1,000 secondary schools in England by 2027. Their purpose would be to coordinate and deliver health and education support for vulnerable teenagers. The commission said the government should start in areas with the highest levels of deprivation.

It proposed that the hubs were run by charities, public health bodies, business and philanthropy organisations. These providers would work closely with local statutory agencies and other public bodies, such as the health service and police. Led by a hub coordinator, sure start plus would:

  • work with local secondary schools, children’s services, health, local community groups and the police to build support systems for teenagers, especially those at risk
  • identify young people who needed extra help, in school and at home
  • coordinate and deliver practical help from specialists
  • work with youth practitioners to build long-term trusted relationships with teenagers to help set goals, build confidence, and tackle and solve problems
  • work with community groups to develop, coordinate and deliver youth activities in and around schools and the wider community before and after school, and during weekends and holidays
  • work with early years provision, children’s centres and family hubs

The commission estimated the hubs would require an average of £500,000 a year. It believed the total cost once fully established would be £500mn per year.

Further information about the sure start early years programme can be found in the House of Commons Library briefing ‘Sure start (England)’ (9 June 2017).

3.3 Poverty

The commission called on the government to recognise poverty as a driver of vulnerability to crime and exploitation and made a series of short-term and medium-term recommendations.

In the short term, the commission said the government should uprate family benefits in line with inflation, end the two-child benefit cap, and extend free school meals to all families receiving universal credit.

In the medium term, the commission recommended the government re-establish a child poverty unit in central government. The unit would lead a “new drive to reduce and eliminate child poverty to level up opportunities and life chances to all communities”.

3.4 Racial bias

The commission called on the government to lead a “national mission” to identify and remove racial bias in the systems that are “currently failing many Black, Brown and Minority Ethnic children”. It highlighted the disproportionate numbers from these groups in the social care and youth justice system.

The commission said the government should develop positive and inclusive anti-racist approaches and accountability to all aspects of young people’s services and support. It recommended:

  • a rapid review into the “adultification of Black children and young people” which adopts proposals put forward by the education, social care, mental health and criminal justice systems
  • the new Department for Children, Families and Schools to lead a new “Black-led taskforce” to work with school leaders, children’s services and health professionals, the police and parents
  • clear targets to increase recruitment of “Black, Brown and Minority Ethnic” teachers, social workers, youth practitioners, mental health workers, fosters carers and those working in the criminal justice system
  • changes to the school curriculum to make it “fully inclusive”

3.5 Family first approach

The commission found that families of at-risk children often felt ignored or unsupported. It argued that a “family first approach” would build and strengthen the resilience of families with vulnerable teenagers. It said stronger support systems would make it harder for those that wanted to exploit vulnerable youths.

The commission recommended:

  • A scheme led by the Department for Children, Families and Schools specifically targeted at families with teenagers. It would be delivered through sure start plus hubs or schools. The emphasis would be on working with families to prevent and protect teenagers at risk of being drawn into gangs, violence and crime. The commission said “intensive support” should be given to families where “crisis hits” to prevent teenagers going into statutory care.
  • All government policies be put through a “family test assessment” to determine their impact on children and families.
  • The government to launch and fund a new “teenager at risk” helpline.

3.6 Social care provision

The commission argued that while extra support for families would reduce the number of teenagers in the social care system, there would always be some children who needed it. The commission said this meant “high quality social care” was required. It recommended that by 2027:

  • 300 new local children’s homes are established for local shared care support for teenagers or converted from current unregulated provision
  • 2,000 specialist youth foster carers are recruited to provide care for teenagers unable to live with their family or whilst they are on remand
  • 3,000 families are supported to provide kinship care for teenagers to stay with their families

The commission estimated that it would cost:

  • £600mn for councils to establish or convert 300 local children’s homes to provide shared care support for 1,500 teenagers
  • £60mn to recruit, train and support 2,000 specialist youth foster carers to provide care for teenagers, including those on remand
  • £50mn to support kinship carers to care for teenagers at risk

The commission also called on the government to implement the ‘Independent review into children’s social care’ recommendations “at pace” (see section 4.1 for further details on the review).

3.7 Youth practitioners

The commission recommended youth workers be renamed “youth practitioners” to recognise their “importance and status” on a par with education. It said they should hold youth work qualifications and receive salaries to reflect this.

The commission called for a major recruitment programme starting in the most disadvantaged areas. It recommended a target of 10,000 additional youth practitioners by 2027. It said this workforce should be employed by community groups, schools and local authorities. They would work with young people in and around schools and integrate with pastoral staff in schools and youth justice teams.

The commission said salaries for 10,000 practitioners were costed at £400mn once they were all in post. It stated that in the first three years this would likely require an average of £200mn per year.

3.8 School exclusions and suspensions

The commission argued the government should set the tone to end the culture and habit of exclusion in some schools, and to promote a new one of inclusion, support and accountability. The commission argued schools should have the resources to support vulnerable at-risk children, allowing them to stay in school or encouraging them to attend. Its recommendations included:

  • an end to exclusions and suspensions for primary school age children by 2024
  • removal of children from a secondary school “becomes a genuine last resort” and is only possible when signed off by the chief executive officer of an academy school or trust or the director of children’s services
  • special educational need support is extended with the provision of therapeutic support and educational psychologists through the sure start plus programme
  • a new inclusion measure is introduced by Ofsted to inform judgement
  • pupil referral units are disbanded, and specialist provision is established in and around schools instead

3.9 Mental health provision

The commission said that children and young people were “suffering unprecedented levels of poor mental health”, which had been made worse by the pandemic. The commission called for:

  • A one-off £1bn children and young people’s mental health recovery programme. It said this could be part-financed by a levy on social media companies and mobile phone providers.
  • Guaranteed mental health treatment from children and young people’s mental health services in four weeks, with a guarantee of next day emergency treatment for young people at risk of self-harm or suicide.
  • Funding to ensure all schools have a mental health team by 2030.
  • New mental health drop-in programmes to be delivered as part of the sure start plus programme.
  • New programme of social prescription that allows GPs and health professionals to pay for activities such as sport, music lessons and drama sessions, and adventure activities.

3.10 Youth justice system

The commission argued urgent reform was needed to improve the outcomes for young people who become involved in the criminal justice system. It said the system needed to take a “child first approach” that was “fully welfare-based” and “trauma-informed”. The commission’s recommendations included:

  • Racial disparity in the youth justice system to be a core strategic priority for “every aspect of the system”. The commission described the over-representation of Black boys in the youth justice system as “shocking”.
  • The work of youth offending teams, safeguarding teams and youth practitioners to be “better integrated to provide greater focus on prevention and diversion”.
  • Violence reduction units (VRU), police and crime commissioners, the police and youth justice board to work closely with sure start plus hubs.
  • A statutory definition of child criminal exploitation.
  • An aim to replace youth offender institutions with secure schools and secure children’s homes.

4. What are the government’s policies?

The government states that “safety from abuse, neglect and exploitation is a fundamental right for every child”. The government has said that to support long-term change it was “rapidly working up an ambitious and detailed implementation strategy” to protect vulnerable children and deliver key services. When questioned in November 2022 about the commission’s recommendations, the government said it was considering the report’s findings.

The following sections of this article outline the government’s strategies to protect and support vulnerable young people in the areas of social care, serious violence and crime, sentencing in the youth justice system, and safeguarding and intervention in education.

4.1 Social care reform: Independent review

In its 2019 general election manifesto, the Conservative Party made a commitment to set up an independent review into children’s social care. The review was launched in March 2021. It was led by Josh MacAlister, founder of the social work charity Frontline. It was supported by an “experts by experience group, an evidence group and a design group”. The scope of the review was to consider the following themes:

  • support
  • strengthening families
  • safety
  • care
  • delivery
  • sustainability
  • accountability

In May 2022, the review published its final report. It argued that a “radical reset” in children’s social care was needed and recommended wide-ranging reforms. The report set out its conclusions and recommendations in the areas of family help, child protection, family, the care experience, and the workforce:

  • Family help: The report recommended replacing the separate services of “targeted early help” and “children in need” with one category of family help. It said multidisciplinary teams of professionals, called family help teams, should be based in community settings. The report said the measure would require approximately £2bn over the next five years.
  • Child protection: The report recommended that in cases where concerns of significant harm were raised, an “expert child protection practitioner” should work alongside the family help team. The report also recommended a bespoke child protection pathway, called a “child community safety plan”.
  • Kinship care: The report said wider family members should be able to contribute to decision-making about a child’s care. It said in some cases this should lead to a “family network plan” under which the local authority could fund and support family members to care for the child. The report also said that special guardians and kinship carers with a child arrangement order should receive a new statutory financial allowance, legal aid and statutory kinship leave.
  • Care system: The report said local authorities should “take back control” of the care market by establishing “regional care cooperatives”. They would have responsibility for creating and running all new public sector fostering, residential and secure care in a region, and commissioning all not-for-profit and private sector-provided care for children.
  • Ambitions for care-experienced people: The review set out five “missions” for care-experienced people: loving relationships; quality education; a decent home; fulfilling work; and good health. It also said the UK should recognise care experience as a protected characteristic.
  • Social care workforce: According to the review, its proposals set out a “radically new offer for social workers”. It said the priority should be to improve the professional training and development offered to social workers. It recommended a new five-year “early career framework” linked to national pay scales.
  • Children and families focus: The report recommended the development of a national children’s social care framework “to set direction and purpose for the system”. It said it should be “supported by meaningful indicators” and supported by a national practice group.

The report said its recommendations should be delivered through a single five-year reform programme, run by a “reform board”. It said the secretary of state should be responsible for holding other government departments to account and should report annually to Parliament.

In December 2022, in answer to a parliamentary question on the review, the government said it was “working up an ambitious and detailed implementation strategy” in response to the review’s recommendations. The government said the plan was scheduled to be published early in 2023.

The Commission on Young Lives has also called on the government to implement the independent review’s recommendations.

Further information on the independent review can be found in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Independent review of children’s social care’ (2 December 2022).

4.2 Serious youth violence: ‘Beating crime plan’

In July 2021, the government published its ‘Beating crime plan’ for tackling serious violence and neighbourhood crimes. Measures outlined in the paper included targeted interventions and investments to support young people at risk of serious violence, such as:

  • Legislating for a new serious violence duty. This is now contained in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. The duty requires local bodies such as local authorities, police and health authorities to work together on analysing and implementing strategies to reduce serious crime and violence in a local area. Youth custody agencies and educational authorities may also be required to work with those bodies under this statutory duty. The government has said authorities should place an emphasis on early intervention with young people to prevent them becoming either a victim or a perpetrator.
  • Investing in violence reduction units (VRUs). These are run by police forces in areas where high levels of serious violence have been reported. The aim of VRUs is to lead a multi-agency/public health approach to tackle serious violence and its root causes. It should include specific interventions targeted at young people. VRUs have been tasked with reducing hospital admissions of under 25s for assault with a knife or sharp object, and to provide support to those who are admitted to hospital with a knife injury or following contact with police.
  • Investing in early intervention projects. The youth endowment fund was established in March 2019 by children’s charity Impetus, with a £200mn endowment and 10-year mandate from the Home Office. The government said the purpose of the fund was to develop and implement “innovative approaches that will help in the long term to prevent serious violence”.
  • Intervening early in educational settings. The plan set out how the government would be investing over £45mn in specialist teams in both mainstream schools and alternative provision in “serious violence hotspots” to support young people at risk of involvement in violence to re-engage in education (see section 4.4 for further information).

Further information on serious youth crime and violence can be found in the House of Commons briefing ‘Serious youth violence’ (4 February 2022) and the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Violent crime, burglaries and gang activity’ (13 October 2022).

4.3 Youth justice system: Changes to sentencing

In September 2020, the government published the white paper ‘A smarter approach to sentencing’, which included proposals for reforming the youth justice system. Several of these measures were introduced under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, including:

  • A statutory duty for the court to consider the welfare and best interests of the child when applying the tests for remand for child custody.
  • Changes to the remand tests so that youth detention accommodation could only be imposed when the child’s risk could not be safely managed in the community and where there was no suitable alternative.
  • A statutory obligation for the courts to record their reasons for imposing custodial remand. Courts must indicate they have considered the welfare of the child in their decision.
  • Removal of the fixed lengths of detention and training orders (DTOs).
  • A statutory power for the temporary release of children detained in secure children’s homes. Temporary release involves the release of a child from a secure establishment for a specified purpose and length of time.
  • Changes to existing legislation to make clear that setting up and running a secure school could be a charitable activity.
  • Changes to the youth rehabilitation order (YRO) including a rise in the age limit of the education requirement so that it is the same as the age of compulsory education and training, rather than compulsory school age; a pilot to make changes to the YRO with intensive supervision and surveillance (ISS) and use ISS in place of short custodial sentences; and an end to the reparation order to redirect the courts to use other options such as referral orders or YROs.

The government said that it believed children should be diverted away from custody wherever possible. It argued community sentences caused less disruption to children’s family connections, and education could be more effective than custodial sentences at reducing reoffending. The government said the intention behind the reforms was to increase the courts’ and the public’s confidence in community sentences as “a robust alternative to custody”.

Further information on reforms to the youth justice system can be found in the House of Commons Library briefings ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill: Parts 8 and 9—youth justice, secure children’s homes and secure academies’ (12 March 2021) and ‘Youth custody’ (26 April 2022).

4.4 Educational settings: Safeguarding and early intervention

Schools and colleges in England must have regard to the statutory guidance ‘Keeping children safe in education’ when carrying out their duties relating to the welfare of children under the age of 18. It states that all staff have a responsibility to provide a safe environment in educational settings, and all staff should be prepared to identify children who may benefit from early help. The guidance states that every school and college should have a designated safeguarding lead who liaises closely with other services such as local authority children’s social care.

Following the publication of the Commission on Young Lives’ report, the Department for Education said that in addition to the statutory guidance, it was acting to “ensure a safe environment [was] a priority in every school”. The department stated it was providing targeted support to keep the “children most at risk of exploitation engaged in their education”.

Measures highlighted by the department included the £45mn set out in the ‘Beating crime plan’ to fund alternative provision specialist taskforces (APST) and support, attend, fulfil, succeed (SAFE) taskforces. The APSTs embed multi-disciplinary teams of experts, including mental health workers, speech and language therapists and family workers in AP schools in the 22 local authorities with the highest levels of serious youth violence. They work directly with young people and offer intensive support. The aim is to reduce the risk of exploitation and to help vulnerable young people move into further education, employment or training after they finish school. The SAFE taskforces bring all schools together in 10 of those areas to provide support to young people at risk of disengaging from mainstream education and becoming involved in serious violence and crime. The investment is intended to help improve pupils’ attendance, reduce the likelihood of young people being permanently excluded from school, and to keep “young people focused on their education”. The government said the 10 SAFE taskforces were set up in “hotspot areas” where incidents of serious youth violence were highest.

The government has also published a green paper on special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and alternative provision (AP). The department said that through the paper, it was consulting on proposals to improve the way AP supports early intervention for children in mainstream schools. The purpose of the plans would be to address behavioural or other issues and prevent them from escalating. The consultation ran from March to July 2022. The government is currently analysing the responses.

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Cover image by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash.