Heads, Teachers and Industry Forum: 'Kids off the Radar - from street to school'

The Children's Minister talks about how the Big Society can provide care and support for vulnerable young people.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Tim Loughton MP

Thank you Ian. And thank you Aviva for hosting this important forum. It’s a great pleasure to be here.

And can I first offer my congratulations to HTI on your 25th anniversary. Set up with the purpose of building relationships between business and education, your network has grown in strength and influence over the years.

And I’m delighted that you’ve chosen to celebrate your silver anniversary year by promoting the importance of raising aspiration among teachers and young people. An important cause which certainly chimes with the aims of the Department for Education. So I wish you every success this year, and indeed for the next 25.

One of the features which I admire so much about HTI, and something which I think all the delegates here today have in common - is a willingness to grasp the nettle when it comes to difficult subjects.

This can-do attitude, this entrepreneurial spirit of optimism - that you all have in spades and do so much to encourage in our schools - is a necessary quality when we’re thinking about how to tackle that most difficult and complex issue - the subject of today’s discussion forum: runaway children.

Past efforts to help these hardest-to-reach people have been rather hit-and-miss, on the whole. Legislation, guidance, policy initiatives - you name it - despite our best endeavours, too many children and young people still don’t get the support and care which they desperately need, particularly at such a vulnerable point in their lives.

But we also feel very strongly that, whatever the past failures, we can’t give up on these children who have fallen off society’s radar. And as we know from too many recent examples, it is often these children who come to most harm through neglect, violence, sexual and other exploitation.

The reasons why they run away from home or from care in the first place are complex and diverse. As are the reasons they can become attracted to life on the streets, and unwilling to change their behaviour, and ultimately trapped in a cycle of despair. It is particularly alarming that of the hundreds of under 16-year-olds estimated to be runaways each year, one in six are under the age of 12.

So if we’re going to make a difference we need to put our heads together, and work together to find alternative ways of supporting, engaging and including these young people in extreme need.

I’m always struck by how much can be achieved, when someone decides that something needs to change. For example, Jo Shuter, the headteacher of Quintin Kynaston, who is responding to the plight of homeless sixth formers in her school, not by wringing her hands but by raising money to buy a 10-bed house, which will be staffed by adults acting as proxy parents, to these students who have no other home.

And David Maidment, the founder and chair of Railway Children, Aviva’s chosen partner charity. Acting in response to the street children he saw during a business trip to Mumbai, David did his research, saw a need for early intervention and started what became, 15 years on, a global charity that last year helped nearly 30,000 homeless children and young people.

To me, these people embody the Big Society idea. To anyone who isn’t sure what the Big Society is all about, I say look no further than these individuals. To anyone who doubts the rhetoric of the Big Society, or thinks it’s really all about cutting costs, I say look at what they have achieved.

And crucially, look at what they have achieved by joining forces with others - collaborating with businesses such as Aviva, as well as with schools, charities, public sector bodies and with young people themselves. Partnering up to find out what works, pooling resources, and being open to creative new ideas that will reach even further. Not sitting back. Not going it alone.

As Barack Obama said when calling for a new age of responsibility in the States, people who join together can ‘do amazing things’.

Businesses too have so much to contribute to building a big society, and giving young people a respected place within it. Nationally and locally, an increasing number recognise the opportunity and the need to invest in young people. To engage them positively in their communities and to help them develop the skills they, and we, need for the future.

Which brings me back to the big, and largely sidelined, problem under scrutiny today. How to help the approximately 100,000 children under the age of 16 who run away from home or care each year. They do so to escape abuse or abusers, possibly neglect or family conflict - but they do so because they see no alternative for themselves. And once on the streets it’s a sure bet they’ll encounter further violence and exploitation. They are truly amongst the most vulnerable people in our society.

I am especially concerned about the runaways who come from the care system, having already been rescued from traumatic and neglectful conditions with their birth families.

We have a particular responsibility to do everything in our power to protect these children and young people in care or who are about to leave care. Statutory guidance already requires local authorities to liaise with police when a child goes missing from care, to take action to find the child and to minimise the chances of them going missing in future.

And a new regulatory framework, coming into force in April, highlights the importance of support and training for foster carers, who provide most of the care placements, to equip them with the skills they need to help their foster children - including those children at risk of running.

Our Department is working with the sector to develop a Foster Carers’ Charter. This will set out how fostering services and local authorities can best support carers - and how we expect carers, in turn, to support their foster children, to enable them to reach their potential and thrive, and enjoy stable placements which mitigate the urge to opt out and escape.

All children and young people who run away - boys and girls - are at far greater risk of sexual exploitation. We are considering urgently what further action needs to be taken to safeguard children and young people. And we need to look at every aspect of the problem, from awareness-raising and prevention through to crime detection and victim support.

I am particularly concerned about the recent cases highlighted in Operation Retriever, amongst others, which highlighted systemic sexual exploitation of teenagers across a number of UK cities, many of them from the streets. The Barnado’s report last month underlined the extent of the problem and I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge.

With my colleagues in the Home Office we are working alongside other government departments, local authorities, Local Safeguarding Children Boards, and organisations like the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and Barnardo’s, to build on existing guidance. We aim to develop effective prevention strategies, support victims and take action against perpetrators.

But to be really effective at getting to grip with society’s problems, society as a whole needs to get involved and be eternally vigilant. And to me that means businesses linking up with charity groups, and getting their employees involved as volunteers. It’s a win-win situation, as Aviva and others have already found. Working with Railway Children, Aviva employee volunteers are going out to schools and communities across the UK, raising awareness and delivering education programmes.

And it’s making them a happier and more loyal, motivated and productive workforce.

This partnership is an example of the kind of thing we want to see more of, and that will underpin the growth of the Big Society. Business engaging with the voluntary sector, with local authorities, with the education sector, with young people and with government. Everyone working together. Everyone’s responsibility.

And the Government’s role in ‘working together’ will be chiefly about creating the right conditions for partnerships to flourish and providing some of the tools. We want to facilitate rather than control from the centre.

So we’re exploring how we might establish a network that will bring together businesses interested in supporting young people. Because the stronger the collaboration, the greater the impact.

We need young people themselves to be involved in decisions that affect their lives, if our policies and programmes are to work. Fewer than five per cent of young runaways seek help from statutory bodies such as police and social services - so clearly we need to go out there and talk to them about what would work for them, and listen much more to what they need. We have to do this if we hope to engage and influence them.

Over the next few months, we will be holding a youth summit and organising workshops and round table events, so that we can develop a shared vision of the purpose, benefits and role of services for young people, particularly vulnerable children and young people.

This will be a real collaboration, so that when we publish our policy document outlining plans for young people’s services, it will have been validated by our partners - young people, local authorities, businesses and voluntary organisations. And it will be the product of joined-up working between other departments.

And similarly, at the local level, we want to see local authorities embracing smarter joined-up ways of working in partnership with each other and with local agencies in order to run services better and more cost effectively.

In tough financial times we have to focus our limited resources on the young people who need it most. And we have to measure success by outcomes achieved, not the numbers ‘processed’, which has too often been the case in the past. We must share insights into what works best and pool capital resources. We owe this to young people and we owe it to the public purse.

We’re exploring Payment by Results models of funding as part of the Early Intervention Grant, to reward those local authorities who produce excellent outcomes.

Early intervention is the key to much of this, which is why we came up with the Early Intervention Grant and are promoting Graham Allen’s work to promote quality and targeted intervention early, with the immense social and financial savings following swiftly on.

As its name suggests, the Early Intervention Grant is intended to fund services that can prevent early risks from escalating into something much more expensive and problematic further down the line. It’s about thinking and spending for the long term and is targeted at the most vulnerable young people and families.

And the role of schools in preventative care cannot be underestimated - by engaging children in their own education and raising their aspirations of course, but also by keeping an eye on students’ overall wellbeing and liaising with other local agencies where there are particularly vulnerable or dysfunctional families, which are often the source of many of these runaways.

Teachers are often best-placed for spotting emerging problems - and for taking early action to deal with them. In recognition of this, and because resources need to be targeted directly at those in need, we have introduced the pupil premium. It amounts to £2.5 billion pounds of extra funding over the next four years, and will go with the poorest children to the schools they attend. And schools will be accountable for spending the money where it’s needed, on raising attainment and aspiration, and giving everyone an even chance of flourishing and staying put.

We are determined to end the terrible waste of human potential that we see in the most disadvantaged and most vulnerable children today. And we are determined to create the conditions for long-term success - through education reform, through youth sector reform, through putting resources where they are most needed. But most importantly through working together.

Thank you.

Published 13 April 2011