In a report to my Public Accountability Board by the new Sheffield District Commander, Chief Superintendent Lindsey Butterfield, I learnt that her officers had recently come across 50 children who were out of school in the Meadowhall shopping centre on a school day. They were all absent without leave.
It wasn’t quite what it seemed, however. Most of them were with parents or relatives, so it was condoned absence rather than truancy. But not all were with parents. This made me wonder how many children are out of school on any given day and what happens to them.
I was told that they are the responsibility of their individual academy and the academies are under no obligation to tell the local authority if children are absent. Fortunately, in Sheffield at any rate, almost all the academies report on a regular basis if their youngsters absent themselves. Some schools have their own attendance officers, some do not. There seems to be a lack of consistency, no doubt one of the unintended consequences of moving to academies.
This is serious. Children not in school are at risk. They are vulnerable and can be targeted by organised criminals. So how many are we talking about?
The national picture has been worsening for some time. According to the National Youth Agency, those who are persistent absentees (absent for more than 50% of the time) numbered:
2019-2020 – 38,000
2020-2021 – 50,000
2021-2022 – 63,000
I have no figures for South Yorkshire separately, but clearly there are going to be a fair few.
It is alarming to see that attendance continues to be lower than before the pandemic. My guess would be that many who subsequently come into contact with the police have just such poor school attendance records.
I certainly think we need national consistency for reporting children missing from school. But I also recognise, having spoken to some of those absentees, that there are some young people who struggle with formal education. This is where I would commend and seek to support the youth work that goes on in our county.
Youth work is not the same as working with young people. Youth work is a distinct educational activity. It promotes young people’s personal and social development through non-formal educational activities. They are probably most effective when they are able to link with the mainstream school.
Let me give an example.
I came across this young person’s story in a report from the National Youth Agency, Better Together.
RM from Doncaster did attend school, but he struggled. Both his parents had died and he was looked after by a grandparent and older sister. He wanted to be a chef. He knew that the school could help but he was easily distracted and had difficulty communicating with his peers and teachers.
His salvation was a local youth club which provided opportunities for young people to take part in a UK Youth Achievement Award programme. With the help of a youth leader he worked to improve his communication skills, his cooking, and his general confidence. He worked in a team at the youth centre, using its kitchen to cook for those coming to the centre. He built a portfolio of what he had done which he shared with his school teacher. In this way links were made between the youth work and formal education. RM has now applied to the Army College with a view to training as a chef.
I thought this was a very good example of what youth work can do to enable young people to make something of their lives when formal schooling might not be able to hold their attention.
We all know how young people who struggle at school or absent themselves can so easily find alternatives that lead them into criminality. If we are to make meaningful inroads into crime, we need more preventative activities of the kind that youth work can bring. But youth work has been one of the more significant areas to suffer during the years of austerity.
Under-spends and police pay
Each month I receive a report from finance officers setting out how our spending is going. Are we keeping to the budget or are we starting to deviate in some way? Receiving a monthly report enables us to take appropriate action to bring spending back in line with the budget.
What causes these fluctuations? Many things. We may, for instance, have budgeted for an increase in staff but the recruitment was unsuccessful. That would lead to an underspend. On the other hand, there may have been more police overtime than we expected and that would lead to an overspend. And so on.
As well as looking at this monthly picture the finance officers also give a projection to the end of the financial year. If spending continues along the current paths there will be an overspend or an underspend by the year end. These projections are sometimes misunderstood and seen not as projections of what might happen if corrective action is not taken, but about what will happen.
In the last financial year we had one monthly report which spoke about a projected underspend of £2m by the year end. One of our local MPs misunderstood this, assumed it meant that we had £2m of funding available, and immediately called upon me to use this £2m to build a new police station at Dinnington. Some Rotherham councillors made the same call.
But it was a projection of what the position could be by the end of the financial year, all other things being equal and no action taken. Of course, all other things were far from equal. In many ways last year was one of the most turbulent financial years I can recall. We had to deal with unforeseeable escalating energy costs as a result of the war in Ukraine and the fall out from the disastrous mini budget which led to interest rates and the cost of borrowing soaring. None of this could have been foreseen, but it put huge pressures on our ability to balance the books.
So how did we do? What happened to the projected £2m underspend?
We now have the year end figures. South Yorkshire police budget for the financial year 2022-2023 eventually showed an actual underspend of £0.03m. On a budget of £300m, this was an underspend of 0.01%. That is worth saying again, slowly: 0.01%.
This is the smallest underspend I can recall in the nine years I have been doing this and quite an achievement by the force and the finance officers given the extraordinarily volatile financial landscape. So much for the £2m! I expect the MP will want to apologise for misleading his constituents.
However, there is a contrast here between what has been achieved locally and what is happening nationally.
The police have been awarded a pay increase by the government of 7%. This is among the highest of the settlements in the public sector. Police and Crime Commissioners had to make an assessment as to what this pay increase would be as they set their budgets for this year, and those assumptions varied between 2% and 3.5% – a long way from 7%. The government will have to give help to police budgets, therefore, or they will be seriously in trouble.
So where will the money come from if the government has ruled out extra borrowing (inflationary) and further tax increases?
In part, looking across all the pay settlements, much of it will be from underspends in departmental budgets.
Perhaps our MP might want to ask a few questions about that.
Focusing on rural crime
If you are a South Yorkshire resident who lives or works in a rural setting, the police would like to hear from you. They have been conducting a Rural Watch Survey since March to accompany a series of rural Watch Launch events held around the county to discuss wildlife and rural crime problems and issues.
The surveys and events so far have highlighted a series of common themes to do with fly-tipping, damage to crops and poaching. But there will be others.
The survey is key for the force if they are to get a realistic feel for the type and extent of rural and wildlife crime in the county. It will also enable them to have the right resources in the right places at the right times. They need to understand where the current threats to rural communities are. They also want to capture the often hidden costs of rural and wildlife crime.
I have met members of the Off Road Bike Team and Rural, Wildlife and Heritage Crime Team at several events recently. The sergeant, James Shirley, who joined the force from Derbyshire where he had a similar role, says his team are a very passionate and committed group of officers, determined to make a difference.
Please take a moment or two to complete the survey if you can. This is the link: