Warnings about “county lines” gangs have generated plenty of column inches lately.
The gangs operate by moving drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine, from cities into rural areas and small towns with the help of vulnerable recruits who are often exploited mentally, physically and sexually.
Police in Liverpool have written to every head in Halton, to the east of the city, warning about the number of pupils involved in county-lines activity. The risks were also recognised by the Department for Education in May when statutory safeguarding guidance was updated to include a section on county lines.
The Thanet headteachers cite the existence of these gangs as a major reason for their area being an unsuitable destination for looked-after children moving from elsewhere.
But while no one seems to doubt that this is a serious national problem, is it more of a concern in Kent than elsewhere?
A report by the Independent Children’s Homes Association (ICHA) says at least 30 police forces across the country have reported county-lines activity; and four-fifths of them say children are being exploited by gangs. The report also notes that Kent is placed about halfway down the table of crime statistics covering drugs and antisocial behaviour.
The headteachers in Thanet also warned that looked-after children moving to their area would be at risk of sexual exploitation.
The ICHA report says that there are fewer known sex offenders in Kent than in 25 out of 42 police force areas across the country.
This would seem to contradict claims made by Kent heads in national media that their area could become “the next Rochdale or Rotherham” – referring to the high-profile abuse scandals in those towns.
‘Completely unhelpful’ comments
Certainly, children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi seems to think that the fears are far-fetched, telling a BBC TV presenter last month: “This scaremongering is completely unhelpful.”
And Sally Kelly, chair of the National Association of Virtual School Heads, which represents those who oversee the education of looked-after children, points out that many of the London boroughs from which children are removed also have gang and drug problems.
“Most of the children who go to Kent have a good life and do well at school,” she says. “A lot of the children are much younger – they’re at primary school – and they’re in the country doing horse riding and having a completely different life.”
But Kent is a large county with many affluent areas as well as more disadvantaged pockets, such as Thanet.
For Paul Luxmoore, executive head at Coastal Academies Trust in Thanet, this is a major flaw in the ICHA’s analysis. He says: “I strongly suggest that the [ICHA] focuses on Thanet alone if it is to refute what we are saying about the safety of looked-after children.”
However, the report also looks at the number of “gang injunctions”, which youth courts have been able to impose on 14- to 17-year-olds since June 2015 to help these young people leave gangs or protect them from gang-related violence. The ICHA says no injunctions had been issued anywhere in Kent, including Thanet.
And Matt Dunkley, children’s services director at Kent County Council, told Kent Online last month that there had been no referrals concerning child-protection issues from Luxmoore’s academy chain in the past 12 months. But Luxmoore says his trust has been referring concerns to the local authorities that place children in his area, rather than to Kent.