Focus feature: Student safety and criminal exploitation

Long read


What happens after a serious violent incident plays out in a college? How can colleges best support students and communities around criminal exploitation? Jess Staufenberg looks at whether safeguarding responses and violence reduction units are working

On a Friday afternoon in February, a 16-year-old boy was stabbed outside Milton Keynes College. He wasn’t a student at the college, and neither was his attacker, but he was known to many college students. He staggered onto the campus.

Lindsey Styles, inclusion and safeguarding lead, was soon on the scene, trying to get an ambulance to the teenager. “The poor young man had collapsed, so students and staff ran out to administer first aid,” she tells me. “They responded amazingly well, doing CPR, trying to staunch the blood and save the boy’s life.”

The ambulance arrived quickly – but they couldn’t save him. Later the hospital rang the college to thank them for their efforts.

How does a college cope with this sort of terrible incident? How can safeguarding against criminal exploitation of students be as effective as possible?

FE Week has researched the subject and found 17 colleges in the news since 2014 for a serious violent incident on or near the college.

In 2021, for instance, a student at Richmond upon Thames College, who was also a refugee who had fled war in Afghanistan, was stabbed and killed. In 2020 at Riverside College in Liverpool, students were stabbed at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, very close to the front door.

But sometimes the incident happens inside college itself, or continues inside. In 2019 at Havering College, a stabbed student was brought into the library for treatment. In a much rarer case, in 2019 a gang with knives entered Runshaw Sixth Form College in Lancashire.

It’s important to say colleges are largely very safe environments, and not to overstate the threat of violence. But providers also say violence and criminal exploitation is increasing.

Oldham College students practicing emergency street first aid

Back at Milton Keynes College, Styles is clear the impact can be devastating. “Staff and students were deeply distressed by it. We responded immediately by having counsellors to help staff and students to offload.”

Aside from therapeutic support, the next issue was misinformation. The first police officer had incorrectly reported that the victim was a college student. Following a review, the college has now set up a telephone hotline for the media.

“If there’s an incident, now there’s a designated number to prevent misinformation.”

The college also wrote a “more specific” emergency “step-by-step plan”, around how to manage traffic and parent requests.

But interestingly the college chose not to ramp up security measures, such as knife arches and more stop and search procedures.

“We don’t want students to feel we are searching them every time they come in,” says Styles. “This is about young people feeling safe, and acting in a safe way – not about feeling threatened and so acting in a threatening way. It’s about de-escalation not escalation.”

It’s about de-escalation not escalation

Instead, knife arches were showcased to students by police officers as a “learning activity”, says Styles. Talking frequently to local community leaders is especially important, she adds.

It’s an important area of debate. Two months ago City & Islington College paused stop and search checks introduced in February in response to concerns about local knife crime and student safety, after students said the measures left them feeling “violated” and staged a mass walk-out.

Nationally, criminal incidents have risen in line with austerity cuts since 2010. Last year there were around 41,000 offences involving a knife or sharp instrument, which was a drop on 2019/20 ̶ but still 27 per cent higher than in 2010.

At the same time the number of police officers in England and Wales has been cut back: a staggering 20,600 fewer between 2010 and 2019. The reoffending rate remains high ̶ in 2020, 39 per cent of children reoffended.

Drugs-related criminal activities have also received more attention. National Crime Agency figures show at least 14.5 per cent of referrals were flagged as county lines issues last year, compared to around 11 per cent in 2019.

Oldham College students graduate after completing the Greater Manchester VRU funded Street Doctors Step Wise, street first aid programme

A flagship response from the government has been violence reduction units (VRU), launched in 2019 as cross-agency groups, with police, health, education and local government representatives.

For 2022/23, £64 million will fund 20 violence reduction units (VRU), split across eight regions: for instance, £7 million has gone to London, £3.4 million to Greater Manchester, £880,000 to Bedfordshire and so on. These share information and signpost providers to services.

Eddie Playfair, senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said colleges in all regions are reporting engaging with their nearest VRU. They also say “the number of issues and referrals is greater”.

“Colleges are much larger than schools and draw students from a wider catchment area, so it means the cross-agency violence reduction work is really important,” he added.

Now Playfair and other college leaders have fed into the third interim report by former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, as part of her Commission on Young Lives, focused on criminal exploitation.

Longfield met with staff from eight colleges at the end of March for the ‘colleges’ section of her report: Kirklees College, Shrewsbury College, Bolton College, Cheshire College, Orbital South College, Liverpool College, South Thames College Group and Stoke College.

The report, published in April, emphasises better inclusion of vulnerable young people at risk of criminal exploitation, but notes “it is clear from our conversations the college sector feels it is often an afterthought in national policy discussion”.

One suggestion is youth development facilities could be based inside colleges.

“Why spend youth investment money on new shiny buildings when colleges have many sports and arts facilities that could be open for longer?” the report quotes a college leader.

It chimes with Longfield’s view that colleges can play a key role in her goal for inclusion to be “baked” into the accountability system, she says. She notes many colleges are “almost inclusive by default” because they take in so many disadvantaged students, including the 14-to-16 age range as alternative provision.

Given that 60 per cent of 16-to-19-year-olds attend college, Longfield wants to “do more work” with the sector and is also holding a 16-to-24 age range roundtable soon.

“I’d like to look at exclusions in colleges, but also the number of kids who fall off courses,” she adds. “Sometimes they drop out in a matter of weeks.”

One college the commission team visited is Kirklees College, in West Yorkshire. Polly Harrow, assistant principal for student experience, echoes Longfield’s concern about students excluded from FE due to criminal activity.

“Every college has their own threshold of what they will tolerate ̶ there can be exclusions in areas of this country where students are excluded more quickly than elsewhere. But do we always understand we might have a very, very frightened human here, who might be under threat? We are sometimes criminalising young people who are afraid, traumatised or being exploited.”

Harrow was driven to introduce a trauma-informed, restorative justice approach at the college following an awful personal experience: her husband’s brother was murdered by a 17-year-old.

“When that 17-year-old was 24, he was released from prison, and we went through that process of restorative justice and sat opposite that person. The fact is, if we can do this here, then we can do it in education.”

Harrow says the key is “really respecting the student voice” on the issues at play.

In such discussions, students are often shocked to discover that those who die through knife crime often die on the weapon they are carrying.

Delivering trauma-informed and restorative justice training to colleges is the Greater Manchester VRU, whose education lead is Rebecca Bromley-Woods, on secondment from The Manchester College. (In 2016, the Manchester College received national media attention when two students were stabbed in an argument outside the canteen.)

The interventions are co-designed with students, but it’s important they don’t compound a feeling that students are unsafe, says Bromley-Woods.

This also helps to counter social media, “which amplifies and escalates” violent incidents, she explains.

“People involved in serious violence are low numbers, but there’s now more people on the periphery following it on social media. That fuels a perception they have to keep themselves safe and maybe carry a knife.”

There’s now more people following the violence on social media

Social media sharing also makes violence more normalised, adds Bromley-Woods. “It’s like violence is almost accepted because it’s online, it’s not real. We’re potentially headed for a culture of acceptance, where it’s seen as the norm by too many groups.”

The VRU, which delivers against a violence reduction strategy, also delivers training on “safer searches” of students and on neurodiversity and inclusion.

John Poyton, chief executive at Redthread charity, which is the joint secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime and Violence Reduction, says an “incident” is a “teachable moment” for colleges, but long-term prevention is all about knowing the wider context.

He points to sociology professor Carlene Firmin’s work on “contextual safeguarding”. Firmin’s approach counters the traditional safeguarding model of students focused “on the home, in isolation” and calls for public services to look for abuse outside the home too.

“It could be about training up council workers cutting the grass in parks, because actually where are young vulnerable adolescents going to be sleeping? Probably on a bench.

“It’s about looking at all the contexts,” says Poyton, adding that the contextual safeguarding framework “fits well” with violence reduction strategies.

Finally, in terms of how best to support young people at risk of criminal exploitation, staff should again listen to students. Suzanne Taylor, assistant director at Barnardo’s (also the joint APPG secretariat), said students report wanting access to peer support and a trusted adult, rather than a referral to a professional service.

“They want support to come to them, in their context,” she explains.

It’s clear that colleges face extremely difficult situations around criminal exploitation and violent behaviour. Take this situation: just last month, a student at Crawley College brought in a fake gun, pulling the trigger in order to scare people. He will now serve more than five years in a young offenders’ institution. It’s such a complex scenario to unpick.

And how effective is the government’s response, including VRUs? In April, the Home Office announced the VRUs and “hotspot policing” are “working”, and have supposedly prevented 49,000 violent offences.

But can better information sharing and signposting really undo such huge loss of personnel among police and youth workers, and cuts to FE funding?

Meanwhile, protecting students aged 18 and over, when they are classed as adults, remains a “cliff edge” of support, experts warn.

There’s some brilliant practice happening, but much more to be done. Let’s hope the Commission on Young Lives, and the Home Office, work with and support colleges as closely as possible.



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