Schools should be wary of their pupils being exploited by drug gangs, according to new safeguarding guidance issued by the government.
For the first time, the Department for Education's statutory safeguarding guidance – Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) – includes a section on "county lines" exploitation.
County lines refers to a new pattern of criminal activity that has seen urban gangs introduce a telephone number in an area outside the city to sell drugs at street level.
Local runners then supply the drugs in these areas. Children are often exploited by gangs to transport and sell the drugs because they are less likely to be known to police and more likely to receive lenient sentences if caught.
Last summer, the children's commissioner, Anne Longfield, said pupils should receive lessons as part of the national curriculum on how to avoid being targeted by gangs and older criminals.
The latest iteration of KCSIE – which was published today but does not come into force until September – says: "Criminal exploitation of children is a geographically widespread form of harm that is a typical feature of county lines criminal activity: drug networks or gangs groom and exploit children and young people to carry drugs and money from urban areas to suburban and rural areas, market and seaside towns."
To identify county lines exploitation, the guidance says schools should look out for "missing episodes, when the victim may have been trafficked for the purpose of transporting drugs".
The guidance says that county lines exploitation can affect any child or young person under the age of 18 years, as well as vulnerable adults.
It can still be exploitation even if the activity appears consensual, and can involve "enticement-based methods of compliance" as well as "violence or threats of violence".
The guidance says it is "typified by some form of power imbalance in favour of those perpetrating the exploitation", including age, "gender, cognitive ability, physical strength, status, and access to economic or other resources".
The revised edition of KCSIE also includes new sections on domestic abuse and homelessness.