Young people today experience a complex world that none of us knew ourselves, is difficult to navigate, and often even more challenging to deal with.
In 2016 Thames Valley Police and the Safer Slough Partnership became concerned by a number of incidents relating to Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) in Slough. Due to the insidious nature of these crimes, they wanted to understand the potential for such issues to lay hidden. To do this they engaged, Lime, a specialist agency, to carry out a comprehensive research project that would uncover the reality of what was going on in order to design a truly intelligent answer.
What was discovered?
Firstly, there was no evidence of a highly-organised CSE network operating locally at that time. What did exist, however, was what was described as a prevalent ‘near peer’ issue —a rising trend of young people preying upon other, younger people, and for a variety of differing and complex reasons.
Secondly, both in Slough and across the country, broader links to other serious issues, such as gangs, drugs and similar scenarios in which young people were ‘preyed upon’ were identified. Despite the apparently divergent nature of their impact, all were connected: all symptoms of a deeper underlying problem.
Thirdly, in addition to these very serious risks that many young people face, much more common but no less important concerns were acutely felt about growing up during a time characterised by constant change and the unrelenting pressure of an increasingly complex and digital world.
Why was this so?
Our society has shifted in two distinct ways.
Essentially, growing up in the UK has significantly changed. For many reasons families spend less time together. This can lead children and young people to experience an ‘affection deficit’ — and with it a heightened desire to satisfy their need to belong, for care, for self-worth, that then drives them to seek to fulfil such needs from the outside world. This can impact both their behaviour and crucially their choices.
The situation is further compounded by the fact that young people spend more time online. The result is more time spent talking to and being influenced only by each other, and often in a virtual echo chamber or ‘pipe’. Within this pipe they express their needs and feelings freely and openly to all, whether personally known or not. This amplifies their vulnerability to those who wish to prey upon it: from commercial gain, to more harmful exploitation, the stakes have never been higher.
All of this means leads to heightened vulnerability, which is then broadcast through social media, enabling them to be identified, targeted and accessed by all of those who wish to prey upon them. In the face of this growing vulnerability problem the only way to achieve actual, real behavioural change to combat it, is to help young people develop their own coping strategies. Doing so in a way that’s truly, widely and sustainably successful in the long term, rests upon two core principles:
- Any solution has to be delivered universally, and consistently through childhood. This means working through the en tire school journey, both primary and secondary phases.
- Eradicating predators is most effectively achieved by removing their prey. This is done by creating a new culture, throughout the school lifecycle where each subsequent year group joins a community where doing the right thing simply becomes the only thing they choose to do.
How are we doing this?
Any programme designed to tackle such serious issues and bring about change has to strike a balance, between raising an awareness and avoiding creating moral panic. What we’ve therefore developed aims to help young people understand who they are, and the process of how they make their choices. Importantly, it uses interactive stories and digital media with which they are both familiar and can relate to, ensuring deep engagement. This is key.
Accompanying group activities have been designed to help children and young people develop and practice the strategies that will enable them to make their own, better choices, so that they are able to protect themselves from the vulnerabilities we all experience from time-to-time. In this way, rather than trying to solve each individual ‘symptom’, the programme equips young people to better manage any problem they might encounter, naturally defending themselves against predatory behaviour.
The Choices Programme is a modular scheme of work delivered across key stages two and three with sessions that build week-by-week. The sessions are designed to provoke challenging conversations and bolster personal resilience. The result is a fun, interactive learning experience that uses a combination of immersive technology and engaging activities to explore complex ideas, while providing opportunities to critically reflect and develop strategies for everyday life.
Randomised control trials have been running in local schools for the last year and early evidence suggests children have benefitted in a variety of ways:
- A better understanding of both the process and practice of making good choices
- The development of critical reasoning skills
- A growing sense of trust both among pupils and with teachers
Backed by a ten-year commitment from the Safer Slough Partnership, roll out across all primary schools has now commenced and further resources are being designed for secondary school settings.
Feedback thus far has been extremely encouraging:
“The programme helped me to deepen my relationship with the children, and I feel they now trust me and each other more as a result.’”
“The children were frank and honest and I think they gained a real understanding of how decisions are made, and what influences those decisions. I’ve definitely seen an impact that has continued since completing the programme.”
“Teachers will now have the most powerful tool to have that dialogue with children. The Choices Programme educates them through a curriculum approach, to become that better person, and make the right choices. Parents are going to be very supportive of it because every parent wants their child to make the right choice, and this programme is certainly going to help them do that. It can change lives.”