Serious Violence Strategy: experts advocate earlier interventions

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Amid a rise in knife crime, new Serious Violence Strategy is to fund projects working with young people at risk of involvement with gangs. But experts say work with children needs to be in universal settings and start earlier.

The launch of the government's Serious Violence Strategy last month was given added urgency by a spate of violent deaths of young people and subsequent media spotlight on how to tackle the issue.

Much of the focus has been on London where more than 50 people have been killed violently since the turn of the year, around a quarter being aged 21 and under.

Latest Ministry of Justice figures show there were 4,490 cautions for knife offences given to 10- to 17-year-olds in 2017 across England, up 12.4 per cent on 2016. Custodial sentences for knife offences also rose to their highest level for a decade.

It is against this backdrop that the government has published its latest strategy for tackling violent crime - it pulls together a series of new and existing measures aimed at tackling the root causes of serious violence and steering young people away from crime.

In total, £40m will be provided by the Home Office over the next two years, £11m of which will be used to create the Early Intervention Youth Fund to support community projects working with young people at risk of involvement in gang-related violence.

The strategy talks about finding ways to prevent young people from carrying and using knives, and of investing in programmes that help divert those at risk of being involved in crime and violence away from street gangs.

The important role played by youth organisations in tackling the issue is a key theme throughout the strategy. It identifies a number of universal and targeted youth work early intervention programmes it has invested in recently, from the National Citizen Service to youth workers in hospital emergency departments.

Children's sector leaders have criticised the amount of money attached to the strategy, particularly when set against the £400m lost from youth services budgets as a result of public sector austerity this decade (see below).

Fundamental criticism

However, a more fundamental criticism of the strategy is whether prioritising interventions with young people already offending suggests a flawed understanding of early intervention.

In its analysis of the strategy, the National Youth Agency (NYA) says funding for tackling youth violence has tended to focus on programmes that work with young people once they "have trodden the path of violence to such an extent that they are hospitalised or in custody, and does not tackle the issue at its various roots".

It is concerned that there is "a disconcerting, if implicit, suggestion" in the strategy that projects that "engage and listen" to young people involved in violence are the most impactful.

NYA's concerns are shared by Pete Harris, senior lecturer in youth and community work at Newman University, Birmingham, and co-author of a new book Responding to Youth Violence Through Youth Work.

"The danger of targeting projects in specific locations is that you end up chasing the violence around," Harris says.

"If we target young people, we need to do it through a universal service, such as youth clubs, embedded in the community. That is how it is done in many other European countries."

For youth workers to deliver effective interventions before violence occurs, they must also get better at understanding the role played by social media in escalating tensions between groups of young people that can be the precursor to violence.

"Detached youth work is about going to where young people are, so they have to go online," he explains. "It is about youth work having a presence online and to do that we need to understand how young people are using social media. We have to think about what detached youth work should look like in the online space."

New approaches

Donna Molloy, director of policy and practice at the Early Intervention Foundation, says measures in the strategy do not deliver the "step change" promised.

"The stated commitment to early intervention is not matched by the ensuing commitments, which are largely a roll call of previously announced or ongoing government initiatives," she says.

Molloy says the Early Intervention Youth Fund should test out new approaches in the youth and community sector, and called for the Home Office to produce "guiding principles on the kinds of approaches that are likely to be successful".

"We must not fall into the trap of assuming that any ‘early intervention' is better than none," she adds. "We need to invest in evidence-based, effectively targeted and well implemented interventions."

EIF also calls for the Home Office to work with other government departments so that efforts to tackle youth violence are linked to reforms in the Mental Health Green Paper, the future of personal, social, health and economic education, and work to reduce parental conflict.

"Tackling the root causes of violence is a laudable aim that the government has stated many times," she says. "Early intervention is an easy concept to grasp, but implementing it effectively takes time, commitment, ongoing investment and evidence-based policy making across a wide range of departmental agendas."

Molloy says social and emotional skills are vital for children's life chances. The ability to understand and manage emotions and regulate behaviour can help children develop resilience and avoid risky behaviours. Education programmes targeted at young people most at risk of getting involved in gangs have tended to focus on secondary school pupils.

However, EIF has just completed a study on the role of primary schools in preventing gang and youth violence.

The study looked at how two London boroughs, Lambeth and Wandsworth, support primary schools and education professionals in working with young children and their families.

Children at risk

It found teachers and school staff were well placed to identify children already showing the early signs of being at risk from gangs, which is particularly vital as research shows children are getting involved in gangs at a younger age. The report identifies examples of good evidence-based interventions across both boroughs (see case study), but also highlights gaps in provision.

Molloy says there needs to be a mix of programmes, with some integrated into the school curriculum and others targeted at children at greater risk.

"However, schools can only do so much," she says. "Some of the teachers said they were worried about year 4 pupils, but are unable to get support from youth offending teams because they only work with children aged over 10.

"There is a gap in services, and the councils are reformulating their early help offer. I expect that situation isn't unique - you probably see it elsewhere."

Children's services leaders: ‘youth cuts hampering efforts to tackle violence'

The National Youth Agency highlights that the £40m attached to the Serious Violence Strategy is only a fraction of the total amount cut from council youth services budgets since 2010.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn says these cuts mean councils "are unable to provide the essential youth service support that stops many young people being drawn into violent crime".

It is a concern echoed by the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS).

"The impact of austerity, cuts to youth services and across the public sector on the availability of positive activities for young people within their communities cannot be understated," says Stuart Gallimore, ADCS president.

"Prevention and early action is key - this must involve co-ordination of a wide range of services, including those to support families and young people, but also stimulating housing, employment opportunities and community facilities."

Paul Oginsky, chief executive of Personal Development Point and former government youth policy adviser, questions the government's focus on developing the National Citizen Service (NCS).

"At a time when youth services have had serious cuts, the NCS costs a serious amount of money. If I was to measure its success, I would ask: is it effective in helping all young people to gain a sense of belonging?

"Other government initiatives around sport, families and even employability should have the same question asked of them."

School programme helps children discuss concerns

A child's path to gang involvement often begins when they are still in primary school, says Michelle Storrod, a youth justice practitioner with 12 years' experience of supporting young people involved in serious youth violence.

"Children of that age want to make friends quickly and that is exploited by older people," explains Storrod, who wrote the curriculum used for a school-based programme delivered by charity Growing Against Violence (GAV).

"Children will feel special and think it will look good to have this friendship when they move from primary to secondary school. Then when they are asked to do something by the older person, they will be scared of saying no for fear of losing the friendship and social currency.

"The exploitation doesn't start with violence, but with people being friendly and offering things like protection, or buying gifts or food."

Storrod says that young children "see what's happening" and are aware of local gangs.

"We've seen year 4 pupils mimicking gang symbols and signs," she says. "Some have told us of peers who ‘stab' others in the buttocks with pencils, mimicking a technique used by gangs with knives."

The GAV programme is taught to every class across a year group by up to nine facilitators working with children in small groups. In some cases, facilitators spend a whole day there, in other cases half a day.

Storrod says language needs to be age-appropriate when working with younger children. "We don't talk about gangs, we refer to groups," she explains. "We make it clear that only a small minority of people are getting hurt and that those not involved in crime have only a very small chance of being affected."

However, Storrod says the facilitators explain that children may have to make tough decisions about who they are friends with if they see peers making bad choices.

"They confirm a lot of what we say and also talk about what is happening to them," she says. "These are sometimes frank conversations. We explain what their options are and where they can turn for support services, as some don't have a basic understanding of that."

GAV sometimes delivers education sessions alongside local youth services and victim support, and advises schools on what support needs to be in place. It has worked in south London boroughs, as well as Surrey, Bedfordshire and Sussex.

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