Greater Manchester Violence Reduction Unit

Damian Dallimore, Director of Greater Manchester’s Violence Reduction Unit, and Anthony Benedict, Executive Head Teacher of Tameside Pupil Referral Units, set out some of the ways Greater Manchester’s VRU is approaching violence prevention in a special blog post for the Centre for Young Lives. 

In 2019 when Greater Manchester launched its Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) alongside 17 other areas across England and Wales, all eyes were on Scotland as the ‘birthplace’ of a public health approach to preventing and tackling violence, particularly where that violence affected children and young people.  Scotland broke new ground when its leaders recognised that when it comes to violence, much like health, focusing on prevention is preferable to constantly looking for a cure and that true partnership required public and voluntary sector services investing in universal, secondary and tertiary interventions.

The results spoke for themselves with Glasgow in particular seeing phenomenal reductions in homicides and serious violence.

In the five eventful years since launch, in Greater Manchester we have very much developed our own unique identity as a VRU.  After all, we ‘do things differently here’.

The most striking point of difference between us and many other VRUs is that our most defining feature is that we are “community-led” in everything we do. This means more than just listening to communities (important as that is) but acting on what they tell us and crucially, involving them directly in setting priorities at micro and macro levels, and making financial decisions including what types of projects are funded, where, when and with whom they work.

Our new ten year “Greater than Violence” strategy (a name chosen by young people) was co-produced with the community including the very clear the voices of children and young people who helped to define our five guiding principles of:

The words “education” and “schools” feature 39 times in that strategy, which is a crude measure but nonetheless speaks to how much of a priority it is for the VRU to work with and invest in education settings. Taking a community-led approach also means engaging with and working closely alongside teachers and head teachers who of course usually know the needs of their students better than anyone and who themselves often live in the local community.

In June 2021, the VRU hosted a summit attended by over seventy primary school head teachers where 88 per cent of them told us that violence in school had become worse in the previous 12-18 months partly due to lockdown, but also a feeling that things were getting worse prior to March 2020. This summit was the catalyst for the VRU working with primary head teachers to commission Salford Foundation to deliver the BLOCKS mentoring programme in ten primary schools in north and east Manchester, working with children, parents and carers in years five and six, and crucially working with high schools to help to manage their transition into year seven.

Some of the most exciting and innovative work in the Greater Manchester education system at the moment is taking place in the area of Alternative Provision and in particular with some of our Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), like those managed by Anthony in Tameside.

Partly this is due to the DfE funded SAFE taskforce and the Alternative Provision Specialist Taskforce which are undertaking really effective work in two of Greater Manchester’s districts – Manchester and Salford – but there is also a notable and significant shift happening in the alternative provision sector that is being driven by leaders working in PRUs who, like VRUs, are increasingly investing in preventative approaches and where policy and practice is now more trauma-informed, trauma-responsive and focused on the needs of the child.

Many mainstream schools currently operate within a crisis response management model coupled with a compliance or zero tolerance approach to behaviour. This is a reactive approach which means that issues with young people are identified late, service response is slow and dysregulated behaviour escalates rapidly.

Research and academic experience demonstrate that adopting a compliance or discipline-based approach to behaviour tends to overly stimulate the fear response system. When a pupil’s fear response system is triggered, they tend to operate primarily from the lower brain functions. Consequently, this impairs their ability to engage in reflective thinking or ‘make good choices’, leaving them only capable of reactive responses such as defence mechanisms or aggression.

While this approach may initially result in compliance, it can swiftly escalate emotional distress among traumatised pupils, pushing them into states of heightened fear and terror.

Children and young people thrive when their interests, skills and achievements are recognised holistically. An implication of this is that compliance frameworks and measures of success need to adopt a broader understanding of pupil achievement/outcomes. The UK’s current focus on standards over wellbeing is actively disabling many of our pupils – what is being perceived as ‘special needs’ or ‘behavioural problems’ are contextually driven responses from pupils attempting to survive in a rigid unforgiving educational context.

The importance of school belonging is a construct through which to both understand and actively improve inclusion experiences for children and young people. Feeling a sense of belonging is an essential foundation, a pre-requisite for learning and/or emotional wellbeing. How do we help children and young people to feel safe, accepted, valued and supported?

In Tameside we have begun to try and address some of these issues through ‘Relational Inclusion’.  This supports all school staff in early identification strategies and predictors using Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), trauma and attachment research. Our aim is to catch children before they fall providing support at all levels through a graduated approach which will respond effectively to specific need. School staff are highly trained but will have the additional support of a professional therapeutic team working alongside them, our young people and our communities.

Relational Inclusion is based on five guiding principles: 1) If a child could do better, then they would; 2) Relationships are key to everything; 3) We accept all emotions but not behaviours; 4) We identify and address the cause and not the symptoms; 5) We foster a culture of compassion and repair.

Our model takes the approach that for Relational Inclusion to work this must be driven by the head teacher and the senior leadership team. It cannot be ‘yet another initiative’ but must be seen as the golden thread which weaves a new culture and ethos ultimately becoming the life blood of the school. All staff, including caretakers, cleaners, lunchtime supervisors, teaching and teaching assistants receive an on-going developmental relational inclusion Continuing Professional Development package.  Relational Inclusion Champions (RICs) are appointed within the school to support sustainability.

The words we use are so important. We believe that if we change our words, we can change the world. We have identified five key pieces of vocabulary which underpin Relational Inclusion in our schools: dysregulation; co-regulation; self-regulation; window of tolerance; attachment seeking. We believe that Relational Inclusion will support schools in improving academic outcomes, attendance, behaviour regulation, and supporting children and young people with SEND through better approaches towards mental health.

Article posted on: 07/03/2024 04:03pm

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