Eight recommendations have been made to help tackle the effect of county lines on the life chances of young people – including seeking to minimise school exclusions.
Essex County Council (ECC) figures suggest a dramatic increase in violent and disruptive behaviour, leading to a subsequent increase in the number of children being suspended or expelled.
In turn, it could leave youngsters vulnerable to exploitation from drug gangs using children to transfer narcotics from dealers to users.
The ‘County Line’ is the mobile phone line used to take the orders of drugs.
County council figures reveal that the number of youngsters who have been permanently or temporarily excluded has jumped from 4,847 in 2012 and 2013 to 8,897 in 2016 and 2017 – a rise of 84 per cent.
The number of children excluded for a fixed period has increased from 6,620 in 2013 to 10,692 in 2019. The number permanently excluded increased from 50 in 2013 to 87 in 2019.
Given the large increases in children being removed from school, an ECC Task and Finish Group working to tackle the effect of drug gangs, knife crime and county lines has provided a set of recommendations to tackle the problems associated with county lines.
Essex, according to the data, has the highest number of violent incidents linked to county lines across the East of England – with around 135 lines coming into Essex at the time of the Task and Finish Group review, which is due to be presented to councillors next week.
While it is thought that county lines operations are essentially exports from large cities – London in the case of Essex – there is also some evidence to suggest that there are some county lines operations coming into Essex across borders other than from the capital.
Serious violence in Essex is said to be increasing at a lower rate than the rest of the country, but it is still rising.
Serious violence offences are generally clustered around urban areas and town centres.
Basildon, Chelmsford, Colchester, Grays, Tilbury and Southend all show significantly higher volumes of serious violence than elsewhere in the county.
In the 12 months to September 2019, there were 920 suspects of serious violence and 1,390 victims.
Additionally, it is estimated that there are just over 40 mapped gangs in Essex with the majority of them home-grown.
There is some suggestion that different tactics and approaches may be needed to confront these particular gangs. However, agencies are specifically seeing a robust ‘franchise model’ in operation where county lines come into an area and take over already successful local drug supply operations.
There is also an indication that there is increasing in-county exploitation – exporting to elsewhere in Essex.
Members of the Task and Finish Group report that there is evidence to suggest ever younger children are being exploited.
The Task and Finish Group report that young people who are criminally exploited have often been isolated from family and friends or excluded from school.
It reported: “Schools are in prime position to identify early signs of vulnerability and exploitation. Yet one of the common issues raised during the project about what young people wanted to see done differently was that greater effort should be made to keep young people engaged in school which might mean a more non-academic focus for some but to identify what interests them and who they engage with.
“Between 2006/7 and 2012/13 the number of permanent exclusions in England reduced by nearly half, but it has risen by 40 per cent over the past three years.
“The Timpson review of school exclusion has also stressed the protective role of schools and the opportunity for young people to build trusted relationships in them. With the exception of home, the school environment is probably the only environment where a young person can benefit from safeguarding, health and wellbeing and learning.
“Therefore, early intervention can be a key step in reducing the recruitment of vulnerable children. Such intervention must start in schools which can offer a protective environment through building support mechanisms, relatable role models and awareness amongst teaching and non-teaching staff.
“The investment increasing awareness and support should complement direct enforcement operations against gangs which is critical to establishing an overall system that helps prevent young people from being exploited.”
It adds that youngsters who have been placed in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) after being excluded may face exploitation because of boredom.
It also says that any future investment does not just act as a catalyst for further problems. Essex has seen a 62.9 per cent increase in the numbers of pupils entering PRU’s since 2018. This is more than double the increase across the Eastern Region and England and will be one of the key drivers for the project linked to students who are Not in Full Time Education (NIFTE).
In May 2018, ECC cabinet approved the procurement of the framework to meet its statutory duty to provide an alternative education provision such as tuition or vocational training for children and young people living in Essex who have been permanently excluded or who, due to illness or other reasons are unable to receive suitable education.
In 2108, the initial estimated value of the framework for its term of four years was £6.8 million based on services for approximately 700 pupils.
In its first year (2019/20), the framework supported 577 pupils at a value of £5 million for year one. This represents an increase of 180 per cent in the number of pupils requiring the provision of alternative education from 2018/2019.
The report adds: “PRUs do not provide a full-time timetable. Therefore, pupils can have more spare time on their hands and possibly be more vulnerable to exploitation. Placing all excluded pupils together in one place also could create a further risk of exploitation. With that in mind, the group were particularly pleased to hear that the PRU model for primary school pupils is being reviewed to try to reduce the mixing of vulnerable primary school pupils with secondary age pupils.
“However, further thought needs to be given to how the PRU model can avoid being a ‘breeding ground’ for further exploitation. There has been a significant capital programme investment in the PRU estate and future communications around this should be carefully drafted to avoid giving an impression that extra capacity is being created solely to encourage an expansion in the number of exclusions.”
It also recommends utilising more fully a directory of youth services, that the Health Overview Policy and Scrutiny Committee at ECC use to consider the impact of drug gangs, knife crime and county lines on wider public health and to promote a greater role of district councils in tackling the issues.