Seven schools have been selected by Bedfordshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Festus Akinbusoye for the persistent school absenteeism pilot project being led by the Bedfordshire Violence and Exploitation Reduction Unit (VERU).
The selected schools are Lea Manor High School, Stockwood Park Academy, All Saints Academy, Samuel Whitbread Academy, Bedford Academy, Kempston Academy and the Academy of Central Bedfordshire.
This bold, new programme will see experienced VERU youth workers provide tailored support to young people with a pattern of persistent absenteeism who could be at risk of exploitation. Support for families will also be a part of the initiative.
Officials from across different agencies in Bedfordshire have been working for months on the programme to ensure the correct processes are in place to best target those most in need of support.
PCC Mr Akinbusoye said: “This entire programme has the safeguarding and protection of vulnerable young people at its heart. It wants to keep children in Bedfordshire safe, pure and simple.
“It is a sad reality that many children caught up in knife crime, in county lines and in serious and organised crime are frequently absent from school, despite the best efforts of parents and our schools.
“The scale of this challenge is enormous: last year 109 children were identified as potential victims of modern slavery in Bedfordshire, while we see too many children coming into police custody for criminal offences.
“By providing this tailored support at an early stage and encouraging them to stay in education, we could make a massive difference to the lives of these young people for the better.
“I believe this programme will help enhance all our collective efforts to safeguard our children and keep them in school.”
Staff from the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner and the VERU have been working with a steering group all summer on the programme, which includes school staff as well as directors of education for the county’s three local authorities.
Kerri Rennie, chair of the Bedford Borough Parent Carer Forum (BBPCF), is also a member of the steering group to ensure that the voice of parents and carers of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities is acknowledged and heard.
Schools with concerns about a child’s absenteeism will be able to make a referral to the VERU’s youth intervention specialist (YIS) team, a group of specialist youth workers which works with young people and families caught up in exploitation.
The YIS team will then consider how best to support that child. More schools expressed an interest in being part of the pilot programme than the seven places available.
Over the summer the YIS team has reviewed the young people it is already working with and offered more intensive support to those found to have been persistently absent from school.
This has resulted in a number of success stories already, including one securing an apprenticeship.
Kimberley Lamb, director of the VERU, said: “Everyone at the VERU is committed to improving the lives of young people here in Bedfordshire. I passionately believe that this project can do that.
“I am aware that there have been concerns about the programme and who it will target. Children can be absent for many reasons, such as family holidays and bullying through to children perhaps living with special educational needs or disabilities, which can often be undiagnosed.
“These reasons can often be multi-faceted and complex, but everyone working on the project will be approaching their work with the utmost sensitivity to support children and young people.
“Supporting vulnerable children and keeping them safe is our number one priority.”
For more information about the VERU visit bedsveru.org
Guidance to help young people cope with anxiety about school is available via the Young Minds website https://www.youngminds.org.uk/parent/parents-a-z-mental-health-guide/school-anxiety-and-refusal/