At the end of 2018, a joint report published by the education, police, care and probation inspectorates suggested that drug dealers were coercing children from independent schools to take part in county lines drug running. Gangs were deliberately targeting affluent children who were less likely to be identified as ‘at risk’ by police.

This issue has evolved further during the Covid-19 pandemic. With schools closed and society spending more time online, it is thought that gangs are able to more easily locate vulnerable young people and that online activity is fuelling gang activity. This, coupled with reduced services, causes concern that more young people were, and still are, in potentially unsafe environments with limited detection and access to support. There is also growing concern that gangs are looking to refine their operating model post-Covid-19, thereby exposing children and young people to new risks.

This bulletin therefore revisits schools’ duties in relation to child criminal exploitation (CCE) and how schools can help support staff in identifying and acting on concerns within this new landscape, particularly as schools look to reopen in full in September 2020.

What is child criminal exploitation (CCE) and county lines?

CCE is where an individual/group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person into criminal activity (including via use of technology) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or for the financial or other advantage of the perpetrator or facilitator and/or through violence or the threat of violence.

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, controlling and 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 emphasises that, as with other forms of exploitation, CCE can affect any child. It also states, crucially, that exploitation may be taking place despite activity appearing to be consensual. A hallmark of this type of 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.

An updated version of Keeping Children Safe In Education (KCSIE) will come into effect on 1 September 2020. KCSIE 2020 clarifies that safeguarding incidents and behaviours can be associated with external factors and that all staff (including and particularly the DSL) should consider whether a child is at risk of exploitation. Schools must give careful consideration as to how best to equip their staff to spot pupils at risk of, or suffering, this type of abuse (as reflected in KCSIE 2020 and the additional guidance on identifying children at risk of county lines and child criminal exploitation found in Part 1 and Annex A).

How can staff identify a child at risk?

Children rarely self-report CCE so it is important that staff are aware of potential indicators of risk. Furthermore, CCE 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’. Therefore, staff need to have the knowledge, skills and 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 2020 highlights that children who need a social worker, and children who require mental health support, are at greater risk of abuse (including CCE), and emphasises the importance of schools working together with external agencies, where necessary, to provide support for these children.

KCSIE suggests that one key to identifying potential involvement in CCE will be recognising and acting on missing episodes (both from home and school), during which the victim may be involved in exploitation. 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. This will also be an important factor in contingency planning for future Covid-19 outbreaks, where remote education has to be implemented at short notice.

In relation to county lines exploitation, staff should be encouraged to read Home Office guidance which sets out further potential indicators of county lines involvement. For example, 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 CCE, 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. Where there is a concern that a pupil may be involved in county lines, a referral to the National Referral Mechanism should be considered alongside availability of local services/third sector providers who offer support to victims.

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 CCE (both online and offline) and how to access support. (Helpfully, Annex C of KSCIE 2020 now includes considerably more resources for schools.) Schools should consider how to raise awareness of child criminal exploitation, such as through PSHE and/or Relationships (and Sex) Education , as appropriate to the age and understanding on the pupil cohort. Enhancing children’s and young people’s resilience is equally as critical, including teaching about consent and how this can affect what happens to them.

A school’s DSL will also be key in supporting staff. KCSIE 2020 emphasises the importance of the DSL sharing relevant information with teachers about the welfare, safeguarding and child protection issues that children are experiencing (or have experienced) so that teachers can help promote their educational outcomes.

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, online safety, 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 CCE 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.

Covid-19 has certainly highlighted the critical role schools play in detecting safeguarding issues and providing support to vulnerable children. The pandemic has also created additional safeguarding concerns and means for perpetrators to abuse children. Adapting to this changing landscape is essential. Staff training 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.

The attitude of ‘it could happen here’ is critical in ensuring staff are adequately equipped to protect children from such risks.