The recent tragic murders in London have again brought home how urgently we need to do more to stop young people joining gangs and becoming involved in violent crime. The drugs trade is absolutely ruthless. It grooms children, uses them and then discards them. The police have told me that the level of violence behind street gangs has rocked as organised criminals have moved in. We need a clear and coherent strategy to turn these lives around.
Last week I took part in a Home Office roundtable to discuss tackling knife crime and gangs. Today, I have also accepted an invitation from the Home Secretary to join the Government’s Serious Violence Taskforce. During our discussion, Amber Rudd talked about the importance of mentoring programmes as a tool for tackling gang membership. It is an argument I have heard many times, and mentoring can make a real difference. Yet the evidence suggests that it also needs to be very good quality – informed and for the long term – if it is to have a real impact in turning around the lives of vulnerable teenagers at risk of getting involved in gangs.
Today, I am publishing a short report, commissioned by my office, which shines a light on the current state of mentoring provision in England and its impact on the lives of young vulnerable people.
As the report shows, mentoring has become increasingly popular as a method of support for troubled teenagers over the last few years, particularly in London. In one of the most extensive assessments of children’s mentoring undertaken, the report looked into over 350 mentoring programmes across the country and spoke to leading experts about their experiences of what is working – and where there is a need for improvement.
The schemes we examined use a mix of volunteer and paid mentors and most are community-based rather than school-based. The most frequent aim of these programmes is to support the social and emotional development of young people.
Does mentoring work? In part yes – overall, the report shows there is good evidence that mentoring can have a modest positive outcome. However, it is clear that the data and academic literature on its effectiveness has been patchy and needs better evaluation. What is absolutely clear is that the most effective mentoring programmes and relationships are those that last, that are properly monitored and include support for mentors, and which allow young people a role in setting the agenda. The least effective are those that end the relationship too early. In some cases, poor mentoring can actually end up having a harmful impact on a young person and in many cases may achieve little because it is not of sufficient quality.
As the Home Office develops its Early Intervention Youth Fund as part of its Serious Violence Strategy, I’ll be asking that these findings are considered.
There is a lot of excellent work being done and I have seen for myself the positive difference mentoring can make, with organisations like Chance UK, who provide excellent training for their mentors and have a tried and tested evaluated programme.
I have been particularly impressed with the work done by the St. Giles Trust – who were also at a recent Home Office roundtable. The Trust recruits ex-offenders to become well-trained, highly motivated, resourceful and trusted caseworkers. They are people with the ‘lived experience’ needed to get to the core of the problems affecting those they are helping – often young people who are trying to escape county lines and sexual exploitation.
Its gangs exit service is working in 16 London Boroughs and has a great record of working with the most difficult young people by re-engaging them with their families and helping them break out of their drug debts. They are also doing preventative work to stop vulnerable children from grooming or joining a gang in the first place by working in primary and secondary schools. Their involvement with one of the leading trauma surgeons at the Royal London hospital is also having a transformative effect on the victims of knife crime, helping young people to make different, positive choices.
Having the right people but also choosing the right reachable and teachable moment to intervene with the vulnerable teen is what will make the difference. Sometimes it is glaringly obvious. The Met Police, for instance, will collect a county lines drugs runner arrested in another part of the country and drive them home. What about inviting a mentor or caseworker to travel with them? This could give that young person a few hours contact with an adult who just might be able to help them break out of the dreadful and dangerous situation they are in.
We need to share these good ideas across the country. Our report on mentoring calls for programmes to stick to the concepts central to the work of organisations like St. Giles Trust and Chance UK: building relationships with vulnerable children that are lasting and providing support for mentors. I want to see more sharing of evidence and best practice with social work, coaching, youth work and youth psychology. The report makes a number of other recommendations, including more oversight of all mentoring organisations, toolkits for effective mentoring and an assessment by Government of how independent visitors for children in care are used and how effective the role is for supporting children in care.
It will take intensive work to divert and disrupt the pathways to gang membership, work that needs to start from a child’s earliest years and carry through into their teens. It needs to be well funded, properly thought through and evidence-based. It is clear that high quality, impactful mentoring has a role to play as part of a wider strategy that involves all services – but it must be good.
This is the challenge to all those involved in helping to change the lives of those at risk of falling into a life of crime.