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Child exploitationGangsSecondary / KS3 and KS4

The urgent need for training to safeguard vulnerable youth from exploitation

Pupil raises hand to ask a question while the teacher is presenting.

This week’s blog is written by Wiktoria, a Criminal Justice Project Worker at Catch22. Wiktoria’s role means that she works across a range of Catch22’s services, affording her insight into solutions to the complex and multi-faceted issues Catch22 sees across its public service delivery. Today, Wiktoria writes about her role as a ‘Gangs in-reach’ worker at Include London, and the importance of educational resources and training opportunities for those working in school settings to support students at risk of grooming, exploitation and ‘gang’ affiliation.

As a Criminal Justice Project Worker, my journey has been one of constant learning and adaptation, supporting the variety of services that Catch22 delivers. Currently, my career has led me to an incredibly impactful role as a ‘Gangs in-reach’ worker at Catch22’s Include school in London. Here, I dedicate a day each week to truly be there for the students as a friendly and consistent face – whether it’s in the corridors, between lessons or during their breaks. It’s about building trust and opening up meaningful discussions on topics that are too often shrouded in silence: grooming, exploitation and more.

My approach has been to draw on my experience from the various services I’ve supported across my time as a Criminal Justice Project Worker, as well as my own personal experience.

I believe that it’s not just about telling or highlighting risks to students. In fact, we know that many young people are mistrusting of directives from those in positions of authority. Instead, it’s about fostering a culture of open dialogue and understanding. Recently, I have begun working with members of the behavioural team and the Senior Leadership Team, to pilot an interactive tutor-time session which will run weekly. This initiative is close to my heart and is designed to spark conversations on exploitation, mental health, and wellbeing, in a way that resonates with the students. Through these interactive sessions, we’re aiming to challenge and dismantle negative views and beliefs, creating a community of mutual respect and understanding. Our ambition doesn’t stop there. We are in the process of introducing group sessions and interventions, similar to those delivered in Catch22’s community and custody settings, but tailored for the school environment. This approach will also aim to foster open and honest communication, allowing the students to discuss any concerns they may have, without fear of punishment.

That is why Catch22 created Catch On, an educational resource for students to learn about the risks of grooming and exploitation. It was created by a team of frontline practitioners who work in our Child Exploitation services and a curriculum lead from one of our Catch22 schools. The aim is to make children aware of child exploitation, empower them to recognise the warning signs, and know where to go to get help if they or their friends are targeted. Since Catch On’s launch last year, we have had over 1,300 downloads of the resource, demonstrating the need and demand across the education sector.

Through my work supporting ‘at-risk’ children in an education setting, and Catch22’s expertise from delivering services, we know that conversations about are often avoided and or perceived as taboo.

Educators in particular can feel ill-equipped to spark such conversations with their students. This silence is dangerous because it creates a “void” in which groomers and targeted social media content can flourish. Increasing training opportunities and access to resources for educational staff is imperative so that they themselves can effectively and sensitively facilitate these conversations. By doing so, we foster safe spaces where children can express and explore their views, allowing misconceptions and harmful beliefs to be effectively challenged. I have witnessed first-hand how these proactive discussions can counter the impact of damaging childhood influences.

The urgency and necessity of these conversations and roles such as mine has become more apparent. The UK government reported that in 2023, an estimated 27,000 children were experiencing county lines, with 4,000 of those in London alone. The need for prevention and support within educational settings is clear, with 120,000 children being identified as at risk of broader exploitation factors. These numbers are not just statistics; they represent lives, futures, and the potential for change. In tandem, there has been a significant increase in school exclusions, rising from an annual figure of 2,097 in 2022 to 3,104  in 2023 – that’s a 48 per cent rise in just a single year. Similarly, suspensions surged from 183,817 to 247,366 in the same period, marking a 34.6 per cent rise. So, not only is exploitation itself on the rise, but so too is the population of children not in school and therefore vulnerable to it, posing a double danger. These figures represent individual children at a crossroads, many of whom are on the brink of being drawn into exploitative situations, due to their increasing disengagement from school.

This is why at Catch22 we’re calling for educators to be better empowered to support those at risk of exploitation. Additionally, there’s a pressing need for more resources for children with behavioural needs, not only in mainstream schools but also in special provisions.

Catch22’s Catch On resource, an educational resource for teachers to lead PSHE with students on the risks of exploitation and grooming, is one of the ways in which we’re hoping to drive this change. The resource is aimed at pupils in year 7 and 8 but has a range of activities for varying needs and abilities so can be used across secondary schools. We’ve also made it free to download as we know that a lot of these resources are expensive, and therefore inaccessible to teachers.

One of the most crucial steps forward in protecting our young people from grooming, ‘gang’ involvement and exploitation is to enhance the provision of prevention-focused training and resources in our education settings. The ongoing escalations in school exclusions, suspensions and exploitation signify the need for this action now. Such measures will bolster the collective ability of our educators and provide them with the tools, vocabulary and trauma-informed approaches needed to provide children at-risk of exploitation with the space and protective networks they need to thrive.

Keep an eye out for upcoming announcements from Catch22 on additional resources and support for schools in working to prevent grooming and child exploitation.