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Meet the former Cambridge police officer working with our schools to tackle rise in drug dealing and violence

A police officer has quit the force to help schools tackle a “genuinely frightening” increase in street violence and county lines drug dealing among teens after becoming frustrated about the effects of funding cuts on crime prevention.

Netherhall school pupils get help from ex police officer. Picture: Keith Heppell. (16349647)
Netherhall school pupils get help from ex police officer. Picture: Keith Heppell. (16349647)

Former Sergeant Phil Priestley, who had most recently been working with schools on the issue, stood down from Cambridgeshire Constabulary last week after 17 years in the police.

He has since launched Inclusive Development, through which he will offer bespoke, individualised support to young people in four Cambridgeshire schools.

“Over my time working with schools I’d seen an immense amount of change,” he told the Cambridge Independent.

That change, he says, includes a need for greater support following an increase in gang-related offences in the community against a backdrop of reduced services for young people amid funding pressures.

“I’ve seen that deficit grow,” he said. “I’ve seen the tension that exists between not just in the police and schools, but all agencies for not being able to give as much as they’d want to. I know how much our Chief Constable and our Police and Crime Commissioner care about these issues – they care tremendously. I do want to be clear that I’m not criticising the police.

“Our best schools are having to do much more on an in-house basis and have been able to rely far less on the support of outside agencies – this is not an indictment of police uniquely – because I absolutely know how hard our police officers are working, and the same is true in social care.”

He continued: “It’s not that we’ve got an issue with bad schools or that we have concerns for one particular area that is ‘falling apart’ – none of that hysteria applies.

“Quite rightly, schools are trying to maintain an inclusive environment where disadvantaged young people can succeed in mainstream education - young people who have often gone through childhood experiences of abuse, neglect or trauma (such as bereavement). It’s really, really hard to witness.”

And Phil, who has worked in Cambridge, South Cambridgeshire and East Cambridgeshire, has seen first-hand the impact that an increase in serious street-based violence is having.

“When I see the trend for young people to pick up, carry and use knives, I think it’s scary, I think it’s genuinely frightening.

“It’s quite lucky that we haven’t lost a young person.

“There is a need for prevention and intervention, these specific young people are a threat to themselves, and a threat to their peer group. There are parents out there that need more information, support and guidance.

“We’ve got superb progressive schools who are supportive of that type of intervention.”

He explained that the threat faced by young people in the city and surrounding areas from county lines was very real.

“There is a process that’s almost akin to radicalisation in terms of drug dealers identifying a vulnerability and playing on that or a deficit of financial security,” he said. “The people who run county lines are very astute at identifying and picking out young people who are demonstrating those traits and then wiggle their way into that young person’s life.

“To begin with, it’s a process of seduction which might include gift giving and financial incentives and telling them this is really cool and desirable and you want to be part of it. Once they get involved, the kids tend to replicate the behaviours, they tend to try to resemble each other. They try to perpetuate a toxic culture and it’s unnerving to see.”

Phil said this is where the coercive element of the relationship can escalate quickly. It can then also have a remarkable impact on the mental health of the young person because they feel trapped and isolated.

He said ‘that drug dealer’ is going to tell them: “You can’t talk to the police in case you’re convicted, you can’t talk to your school because they’ll boot you out, what are you going to do? Tell your mum you’re a drug dealer?”

In fact the police don’t want to convict young people and in truth they could always talk to their teacher and be honest with their parents and the police, but what they’re programmed with is the opposite.

He added: “You forget how young these victims can be because they look older, they are savvy online, they know a lot about a lot of different things and they live in an age of information where they can draw information from lots of different places in a way that we couldn’t. Sadly that information isn’t always reliable.

“It’s easy to think they’re switched on, but they’re still young, they haven’t lived any life and they’re going through a lot.”

Initially, Phil will be working with four schools: Cambourne Village College, Sawston Village College and Linton Village College in South Cambridgeshire and Netherhall School in Cambridge.

Chris Tooley, principal at Netherhall, said he was very excited to be one of the schools involved after initially discussing the idea with Phil at the Cambridgeshire Headteachers Forum.

He said: “It’s widely publicised the effect of county lines in Cambridge. We read in the papers and on websites repeatedly about incidents in Cambridge.

“We read about the increase of gang-related offences that take place.These are issues which are present in all communities and over which schools have limited power. There is a clear need for intervention from all agencies.”

“In the past there has been a greater degree of finances put in by local authorities and police into community work but as funds have been stretched over the last few years, many of these have fallen by the wayside and priorities have had
to change.

“So we’re left with a situation of growing social need and reducing external provision. It is into this void that Phil has stepped. Along with four schools, he is working to provide some very bespoke individualised support to prevent vulnerable young people falling into bad habits.

“Crucially, this project is not one of dealing with difficult children. It is about what can we do together to educate parents, to educate students, to work intensively with individuals who have issues and really to use that expertise that Phil has to access opportunities to support our young people, so it’s really exciting.

“If you look at the rise of county lines and you look at the length of time of austerity - there is a correlation between the reduction in funding and the growth of these issues. We need to do what we can to address those at the earliest opportunity.”

Phil added: “I am tremendously excited to be working in this group of schools because they are genuinely excellent.

“I am someone who has skills and experiences from my professional background – and I have a range of professional contacts. I can offer confidence and authority.

“I know that for some – particularly families – navigating the world of multiagency can be baffling. I can help to make the correct referrals quickly and easily to increase the likelihood of support and a successful outcome.

“My work tends to focus on mainstream education and then outside of that, and outside of the hours of schools, being able to
offer a limited amount of capacity to help others.

“It’s not like I’m doing it because I particularly want to be in business but it simply gives me the ability to apply my undivided attention to this subject without having to be distracted by a million and one other things that will come to the police because with austerity as services shrink, the next phone call that people make is to the police.”

The support Phil will be offering will vary from school to school with some one-to-one work, as well as work with small groups.

He will also be offering support and guidance to parents.

For more information, visit inclusive-development.co.uk.

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