Last week I attended a short but moving ceremony in Kew Court, Swinton, arranged by The Police Memorial Trust. It commemorated PC John William Kew who had been killed near to this spot in 1900 in the line of duty.
A small group, including the Mayor of Rotherham, Councillor Robert Taylor, gathered in a quiet cul-de-sac, named after PC Kew, for the unveiling of a memorial stone. This was done by Geraldine Winner, the widow of Michael Winner, the film-maker. He had been a passionate supporter of the police and established The Police Memorial Trust after WPC Yvonne Fletcher was murdered while on duty in London in 1984. The trust sets up commemorative memorials in those places across the country where officers have died on the job.
Assistant Chief Constable David Hartley gave a brief address. He said that although he lived locally and had spent his whole career in South Yorkshire police, he had only found out about PC Kew recently. John Kew was the local police officer for Swinton, living in the Piccadilly area.
On 10 July, 1900, late at night, police officer Kew was called to a house on Piccadilly. The community were concerned because one of their neighbours had acquired a pistol and threatened people with it. PC Kew entered the house in question and encountered two brothers. One fired the gun and wounded him. Undeterred, PC Kew wrestled with him. As he did so, the other took the gun and shot PC Kew again. Despite his injuries he summoned help and was eventually taken home. He died the following day from his wounds. He was thirty and left a wife and four children.
West Riding Constabulary – this was long before SYP – awarded his widow a pension of £25 p.a. for life. Despite the pension, the family suffered great hardship.
Alan Jones, the secretary of the Rotherham branch of the National Association of Retired Police Officers (NARPO) reminded me that his members have worked tirelessly over many years to have PC Kew remembered appropriately, and this has now happened. Local Councillor Ken Wyatt has also played a significant role.
At the end of the ceremony, wreaths were laid by Geraldine Winner, chair of the The Police Memorial Trust, and the Assistant Chief Constable, as two very patient police horses looked on. PC Kew is buried in St Margaret’s Parish Church where there are plans to restore the grave.
Although, sadly, a number of officers in South Yorkshire have died while on duty, this was the last time an officer was murdered so it seemed right to recall his bravery and commitment.
The two assailants were arrested, charged and convicted within a month of the crime. One was hanged and the other, being under 18, was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Justice was swift in those days.
The missing children
I recently wrote about an occasion when South Yorkshire police found in the Meadowhall Shopping Centre 55 children who were not in school. Most were there with a parent or family member, so this was condoned absence rather than truancy. Nevertheless, it raises questions about what the schools knew and what the parents and others thought they were doing. But leaving that aside, it did make me wonder just how big a problem we have with children missing from school and what becomes of them. After all, as well as missing valuable days of education, they may be making themselves very vulnerable and open to exploitation, sexual and criminal.
The problem goes beyond South Yorkshire. According to Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner, last year, just under one quarter of pupils – 22.9% – were persistently absent from the classroom in our region. And this absenteeism is reflected across the country.
So when the Commissioner called a round table for professionals in Yorkshire, the Humber and North Lincolnshire to discuss this, I joined. This was in the Guildhall in Hull, though I participated by remote link. Those at the table represented organisations and agencies she thought could contribute to bringing about 100% school attendances.
The statistics for persistent absence by secondary school age children in our four local authority areas show a marked increase since the pandemic:
Persistent absence Overall absence
Local Authority 2022/23 22018/19 2022/23 2018/19
Doncaster 32.2% 17.1% 10.8% 6.5%
Barnsley 30.5% 15.3% 10.3% 6.5%
Sheffield 28.5% 15.3% 9.9% 5.9%
Rotherham 28.3% 15.0% 9.7% 5.8%
It would seem that during the lock downs, some young people formed habits of not going to school that proved hard to break afterwards.
The Commissioner had undertaken an Attendance Audit during which children had pointed out what was going wrong in their lives that led to non-attendance. The issues sometimes lay within the school but sometimes not. There were children who lived in poor housing, children who struggled with public transport, children who were carers, children who had health problems, children in care, children who found little in the curriculum to engage with, children who were excluded…
One persistently absent 9-year-old boy, said: ‘My mum gets sick quite a lot. If my dad has to go to work to earn some money then I need to stay home and look after my mum and little brother.’
Children with Special Education Needs (SEND) were especially at risk as a result of lack of support while the demand for children and adolescent mental health services had risen dramatically and as a result, there were long waiting lists with some unable to get onto a waiting list in the first place.
It was a pretty bleak picture and not one that was going to change quickly even when the issues had been identified.
As well as having a general concern, I was also focused on what all this could mean for the criminal justice system in coming years. If children are not in school, they fall behind with their education, and the more this happens the more difficult it is for them to progress into a job, an apprenticeship or college. They may be on the streets and vulnerable or on-line and equally vulnerable.
A recent joint study from the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education showed that in 2019-20, 81% of children who committed offences had a history of non-attendance at school. For serious violence, the figure was even higher at 85%.
Last week the government was much exercised with the problem of decaying school buildings. Ministers exuded – quite rightly – a real sense of urgency. Everyone had to act quickly to prevent a disaster occurring. We need the same sense of urgency towards those who ought to be in those buildings but all too often are found to be missing.
This is a serious way of preventing crime.
RAAC and ruin
The physical assets of the police service – land and buildings – are vested in the Police and Crime Commissioner. So I chair the estates board that oversees the estate. I was naturally concerned when I heard about RAAC – reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete – in schools. Did we have any police buildings that had RAAC, a cheap alternative to traditional concrete that no doubt seemed a good idea at the time?
The general point about the crumbling concrete crisis is quite simple. If you do use cheap alternatives to traditional materials, eventually there is a price. I recall many years ago, when I was a member of Sheffield City Council and we had financial problems, we ‘saved’ money one year by resolving to extend the life of the programme for painting the city’s 90,000 council houses. It saved money in the short term, but as the years passed, the effect of not painting so often began to tell – paint peeled off windows and doors exposing the wood to the elements. Lintels and door-posts began to decay. Estates began to look run down. People’s pride in their neighbourhood began to wane. It was a false economy.
The police estate faces a similar dilemma. At one time policing received capital grants – for buildings, repairs, and so on. But in the last few years these grants have disappeared and all capital spending – where there are no capital receipts from selling buildings are available – now has to come out of the same funding pot as everything else. The temptation, when budgets are under pressure, is for spending on unglamorous things like building maintenance to be put off or ignored. RAAC is a warning to us of the consequences.
We need capital grants restored before it’s all too late.