Vulnerable adolescents deserve better than a maze of bureaucracy

A new public accounts committee report outlines a costly and decades-long failure to bring services together to support vulnerable adolescents, says Meg Hillier

A new public accounts committee report outlines a costly and decades-long failure to bring services together to support vulnerable adolescents, says Meg Hillier

22 Feb 2023, 9:45

In an era of unstable politics we see government retrenching and making policy in silos, but the real challenges and ‘wicked’ issues we face cut across Whitehall departments. Supporting vulnerable adolescents is a classic example.

As the Public Accounts Committee outlines in our latest report, the issues vulnerable young people face cut across agencies, and failure to tackle them has a devastating impact on them, their communities, wider society and the public purse. The estimated lifetime cost of the adverse effects for children who have ever been allocated a social worker is around £23 billion every year.

Yet too often the buck is passed from one organisation to another because none owns the problem. For a parent or carer, and especially for a young person, it can be impossible to navigate the system or even secure the support necessary to do so.

This is not new. In 1994 as a local councillor I saw the same challenges – from the sharp end of child protection to the vulnerable young adolescents in children’s homes groomed into sexual activity. As an MP in inner London nearly 20 years on, I see gang leaders adept at identifying, abusing and using vulnerable children – now very often in brutal county lines activity.

Too many young people get sucked into crime as perpetrators and victims because they are vulnerable. We have known this for decades and yet the problems go on and on. Now, we also have a growing crisis with young people’s mental health. And the fact that young women and young people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are so disproportionately affected adds to the impetus to act.

Too often the buck is passed from one organisation to another

The solutions can be simple. Take the Hackney teenager eventually excluded for missing school. A home visit revealed a mother with alcoholism whose two sons owned one pair of school trousers between them and alternated attendance. A pair of school trousers solved part of the problem (he went on to university), but the system took too long to identify it, leaving those boys at risk. Today, I fear the home visit would never happen.

The Department for Education is theoretically in charge of support for vulnerable adolescents, but there are so many parts of the system that should work together to support this group of young people – schools, colleges, health, police, councils, housing, youth services, courts and voluntary groups. School and college leaders know all too well that the challenges are often beyond the ability of one organisation to deal with; just navigating the complex web of support a young person needs is hugely challenging.

My experience as a councillor and MP is that often it is schools and colleges who pick up the problems early on. Increasingly, even they are struggling to access support when they do. I have seen tragic cases where schools have flagged issues but the young person gets lost in the maze of bureaucracy that is supposed to be supporting them. More empowerment at the front line and strong advocacy from a named individual could help target support where it is most needed.

It’s never been truer than now, and the costs alone dictate: we need a more joined up approach. This is financially possible; a fraction of that £23 billion could divert many vulnerable young people from falling through the cracks in the system.

We need to see evaluation of the cost and impact – and the value to wider society and the taxpayer – of interventions to change the life opportunities of this cohort.

Ownership of such a complex issue by one department means it does not get the attention it deserves – at huge, unacceptable and unnecessary cost to young people and communities. We don’t just need a strategy anymore; We need to see regular reports to parliament of the actual, measurable, long-term impact on young people’s outcomes.

By and large, schools and colleges do a great job of identifying young people who need help early. It’s time they were supported to do so, and confident that everyone else will play their part to put long-term help in place. It’s what our education system needs, and what our vulnerable adolescents desperately deserve.

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