Anne Longfield said she has begun an investigation into the practice of taking children “off-roll” without formally excluding them because they are viewed as difficult to manage and may drag down the school’s results.
The office of the commissioner, an independent position backed by statute, is conducting an urgent analysis of confidential government data, including exclusions and police records, to establish how many off-roll children are drawn into gangs.
Longfield said it was vital for the government to give clearer advice to schools on handling children at risk of joining gangs, after receiving a letter from a Manchester headteacher who had resorted to looking at YouTube videos for help.
The headteacher also made the extraordinary claim that some gang members had approached schools, posing as anti-gang voluntary groups, in an effort to recruit vulnerable young people into gangs.
“Anecdotally, people report that more children who aren’t in mainstream education are being marginalised and are more vulnerable to gangs, who are preying on them and grooming them,” Longfield told the Observer. “What I want to do is show that link directly in areas of hotspots, to see whether there is a causal link between more school exclusions and gang violence.”
The rising pressure on schools to achieve better Sats, GCSE and A-level results each year creates an incentive to look for small advantages. Some, such as St Olave’s in Orpington, south-east London, went as far as to withdraw places from pupils it believed would not get good results, artificially boosting its league table position.
Ofsted is looking at another 300 schools, and has identified about 9,500 children who disappeared from school registers just before starting their GCSE year. Alongside the unofficial exclusions are the official ones – up by 40% over three years to 6,685 in 2015-16.
Where do these excluded children go? Some are educated at home while others go to pupil referral units (PRUs) – both are associated with worse educational outcomes, Longfield said, with three-quarters of PRU children regularly absent.
Gangs looking to expand their drug-dealing businesses often turn to PRUs as a source of recruits, Longfield said. “They know where to find them. Their techniques are very tenacious – they use a whole range of models which are quite frightening.”
The headteacher of an alternative provision school in Manchester wrote to Longfield with a warning for education professionals. “A police officer told me that some gang members are approaching schools to offer motivational sessions but in reality are still involved in gangs themselves and may even be using this as a recruitment tactic,” the headteacher wrote.
Longfield said if children were rejected from mainstream schools and had little family support, gangs could become an attractive option, with around 30,000 children aged 10 to 15 admitting they are part of a gang, according to the commissioner’s research. “These children are in many ways invisible – they become visible when they hit the headlines and then we’re surprised,” she said. “And in the long school holidays, there are increasing worries about this.”
Longfield said the response of the Manchester school to gangs was impressive, developing a programme that included training teachers in how to spot signs of gang radicalisation, minimising the contact between pupils at risk of joining gangs, and de-glamorising gang culture“This is a school that recognises a problem here and is really stepping up, doing really strong safeguarding and making sure that the culture in the school is really about counter cultures against gangs,” she said. . “I would like the government to give advice to schools about how they should adopt policies like this and the positive work they should undertake,” she said.