Independent schools' duties in light of county lines child criminal exploitation

A joint report published earlier this month by the education, police, care and probation inspectorates suggests that drug dealers are coercing children from independent schools to take part in county lines drug running: it states some gangs have begun deliberately targeting affluent children who are considered by the groups to be less likely to be identified by police as being ‘at risk’. The issue is a growing problem, with almost 90% of police forces reporting evidence of county lines activity last year.

This bulletin therefore explores a school’s duties in light of county lines exploitation and how schools can help support staff in identifying and acting on concerns.

What is county lines?

County lines is a form of child criminal exploitation. The term is used to describe the gangs and criminal networks involved in the trafficking and supply of drugs from one area to another. The name stems from use of a dedicated mobile phone line (or other form of ‘deal line’) and cross-county travel typical of the activity. The gangs exploit children and vulnerable adults, coercing them to move and store drugs and money through use of intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.

What does Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) say?

KCSIE stresses the fact that, as with other forms of exploitation, county lines exploitation can affect any child. It also states, crucially, that exploitation may be taking place despite activity appearing to be consensual; a hallmark of county lines abuse is a power imbalance between victim and perpetrator, however this imbalance may not always be immediately obvious and can be due to a wide range of factors including age, gender, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, and access to economic or other resources. Compliance may be by force, or via enticement. Similarly, there are no typical perpetrators, with individuals, groups, males and females, and young people and adults all potential abusers.

As such schools must give careful consideration to how best to equip their staff to spot pupils at risk of, or suffering, this type of abuse.

How can staff identify a child at risk?

Children rarely self-report child criminal exploitation so it is important that staff are aware of potential indicators of risk. Furthermore, child criminal exploitation is a complex form of abuse and it can be difficult to identify and assess. The indicators can sometimes be mistaken for ‘normal adolescent behaviours’ so requires staff to have the knowledge, skills, professional curiosity to carry out an assessment which analyses the risk factors and personal circumstances of individual children to ensure that the signs and symptoms are interpreted correctly and appropriate support is given.

KCSIE suggests that one key to identifying potential involvement in county lines will be recognising and acting on missing episodes, during which the victim may have been trafficked for the purpose of transporting drugs. Schools will therefore need to have robust policies and procedures in place for identifying when children are missing and ensure staff training encompasses the school’s safeguarding response to children who go missing from education.

Staff should be encouraged to read Home Office guidance which sets out further potential indicators of county lines involvement e.g. a child may have unexplained funds or other items, form relationships with controlling or older people, show a decline in attainment, and/or demonstrate changes in physical or emotional wellbeing. Pupils who are particularly vulnerable (such as those with SEND) are also more at risk; a school’s SENCO’s /Head of Learning Support should liaise closely with a school’s Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) when supporting such pupils. It is also important for staff to be aware that children can be perpetrators of county line exploitation emphasising the importance of effective peer-on-peer abuse procedures and protocols.

Schools should therefore ensure all staff are familiar with these warning signs and know what to do when they are identified.

What should staff do if they are concerned a child is at risk?

Where a member of staff identifies a pupil as being at risk of county lines exploitation, the school’s safeguarding procedures should be followed. This will usually entail contacting the school’s DSL who, in turn, will liaise with local authority social services. However, any staff member can make a referral direct and if staff are concerned a pupil is in immediate risk of harm, they should contact the police.

Wherever possible, schools are advised to share confidential personal information with the child’s consent. Recognising children and young people’s rights to participate in decisions about them (in light of their maturity and their needs) and involving parents, where safe and appropriate, are key to the initial response. However, where there are concerns that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, schools may disclose to external agencies without consent in order to protect the child from harm.

Ongoing support that is responsive to individual need will also be key, which may entail engaging with specialist services as appropriate to the individual circumstances.

What steps can schools take to safeguard their pupils?

It is important that schools educate all children about the nature and risks of county line exploitation (both online and offline) and how to access support. Schools should consider how to raise awareness of county lines exploitation, such as through PSHE and/or Relationships Education, as appropriate to the age and understanding on the pupil cohort. Enhancing children’s and young people’s resilience to child criminal exploitation is equally as critical, including teaching about consent and how this can affect what happens to them.

Educating and involving parents so they can identify and report concerns and seek support is equally as important: parents and carers have a critical role to play in helping to protect children from harm as they can educate their children about sex, healthy relationships and abuse, enhance resilience, provide a safe base and ensure open channels of communication between home and school.

Schools must ensure they are aware of local multi-agency protocols in relation to county line exploitation and recognise the importance of information sharing in order to keep children safe. Regular liaison with local police forces and other local agencies should inform schools’ approaches, with strong local knowledge at the heart of combatting this type of risk.

Staff training, as referenced earlier, is undoubtedly key but alone is not sufficient: training should be accompanied, for example, by opportunities for supervision; access to appropriate support; and opportunities to learn from others when addressing issues regarding child exploitation.

Legal 500 logo

Investors in People logo

UK Chambers logo

Best Companies - One to watch logo