March 22, 2021 Learning and Reflections, Learning Events, Partnership, Programme Blogs, Programme Themes, Research and Evidence

‘It’s not them, it’s us’: the making of a child exploitation strategy


Ben is a TCE Delivery Partner whose career has seen him work and lead across a range of children and young people’s services. He is strategic lead for improvement and innovation in children’s services at London Councils. In this blog, he reflects on his experiences of working with partnerships in local areas to develop a strategic approach to child exploitation.

You will all, no doubt, be familiar with the subtext of the break up line, “It’s not you, it’s me”, which actually means, “It’s you!” In the course of working with partnerships seeking to develop their strategic approach to child exploitation, I’ve been struck by a similar refrain, “It’s not us, it’s them”. In this case, however, there is no subtext, just a sense of frustration that other agencies are mis-aligned, don’t get it; are either insufficiently engaged or too domineering. What I have also noticed is that at some point in the development process there is often a breakthrough moment, when perspectives shift to become, “It’s not them, it’s us”. The ‘us’, in this case, is not an individual agency but the whole partnership; a recognition that all are involved in a shared endeavour. 

This isn’t a phenomena which is exclusive to child exploitation. I have observed it in strategic partnerships at various times, but it is particularly evident in areas of practice – such as child exploitation – which are emergent, complex and have a limited evidence base. When we are in unfamiliar territory, it is natural to be fearful, to hold fast to what we know and those to whom we are already closest. It is easy to misconstrue or impugn the intentions of those we ‘other’. These tendencies are amplified when there are strong external drivers in terms of inspection and regulation; where the stakes are high, as they are with child exploitation, and where there is significant political scrutiny on individual agencies and the whole partnership. It isn’t surprising then, that the starting point is often one of identifying a position in opposition to, or at least in relation to, that of other partners.

We know there are established principles, which should inform our approach to any strategy development in the public realm. Mark Moore’s Creating Public Value (1995), for example, provides a helpful guide to the requisite conditions to achieve public policy goals1. Establishing a shared vision, a future state which will add to ‘public value’ and which partners can coalesce around is critical. To mobilise towards this requires organisational capacity and alignment. It also requires support from those who can bring authority and direct resources towards the goal. From here the strategy moves towards the plan, which identifies the specific objectives and related actions which will make this vision a reality. My colleague, Tony Saggers, maps this process of strategy development here

Perhaps less well described are the behaviours and psychological processes which underpin successful partnership strategy development. In the course of the TCE Support Programme, we are increasingly recognising the foundational significance of behaviours such as leading with care, holding space to engage with complexity and uncertainty, and being able to recognise that child exploitation requires us to deal with multiple blurred boundaries (Joining the Dots). 

What I have seen in many of the Bespoke Support Projects and experienced in working on strategy development in other complex and contested areas of practice, is that, if properly attended to, the process of strategy development in itself provides a means of overcoming these barriers between partners and unlocking collective potential. 

Just as the process of assessment with children and families can in itself be part of the intervention, so it is with partnerships. The act of coming together to systematically approach a shared challenge – the process of asking questions, being curious, identifying needs and strengths – is often as important and powerful as the strategy identified at the end. The development phase both starts the change process partners are working towards and creates the conditions that mean the ultimate strategy has the best chance of succeeding.

Our learning from the TCE programme suggests that partnership strategy development requires some core ingredients. A starting point is a mandate to review and, where necessary, reform current arrangements. The more explicitly this mandate is given by those ultimately accountable for the partnership’s activities, the more effectively the work will progress. Thereafter, those tasked with strategy development need to commit to make time together to systematically unpack issues, which are typically only ever touched upon in the course of routine partnership meetings, and to invest in the process. 

Once this strategic frame is established, there is a set of key components that will support the development process. These can be summarised as:

Creating space to share and learn together: this provides opportunities to name barriers and reflect honestly on the state of practice and the partnership. This means creating an environment where individuals can admit to vulnerability on behalf of themselves, their agency and the collective.

Knowledge exchange: to support a common level of understanding. New areas of practice can encourage a hierarchy of those ‘in the know’ and those left feeling vulnerable about their expertise. This means drawing on subject matter expertise where appropriate, but also appreciating that child exploitation is constantly evolving – we all need to remain open and alert to what may come next.

Effective facilitation: ideally this will be external, or at least neutral, such as is provided in Bespoke Support Projects through the TCE delivery team. This work takes persistence; it is easier to shy away from sensitive subjects than to work with ambiguity and acknowledge professional vulnerability. Skilled, impartial facilitation provides a platform for, what can be, difficult conversations. 

Adopting a mixture of methods: including, at times, working with individual agencies rather than partnership groups, to ensure that people feel that they have been able to speak their truth. 

Explicitly attending to behaviours and the culture: there is no ‘right’ in terms of what a strategic document tackling child exploitation should contain, but there is a stronger case to say there might be a ‘right’ in terms of how we approach and model strategy. Shifts in culture, and in partnerships, are strengthened by modelling specific – constructive – behaviours. This has a particular pertinence in tackling child exploitation; we have to explicitly eschew, rather than mirror, power dynamics and coercive and controlling behaviours.

When relationships have been strengthened, through this process of working together to shape a strategy, partners are better able to recognise that they are engaged in a common endeavour, for which they are all equally responsible. A strategy document does not in itself change practice or change the experience of children. However, a strategy founded on a process which has laid bare the weaknesses and identified the strengths across a partnership; which has built new bonds and a common purpose between partners, will have a much greater chance of improving outcomes and experience for children. 

I’m sure many people will recognise the feeling when strategic partnerships move into their most productive phases; something clicks. What is increasingly evident is that that ‘something’ isn’t the result of fairy dust. It comes from having created the conditions, having invested in your partners and in shared development activity, and through each of us leading with care to achieve a common goal. Once you have made that investment as a partnership, and brought together the necessary ingredients, you just need to trust the process.

Next time you find yourself saying, “it’s them, not us”, ask yourself could it actually be ‘you’, as an individual or agency? If it is, can you take the lead in making it about ‘us’?

1Moore, M, (1995) Creating Public Value, Harvard University Press

Joining the Dots
Our collective knowledge of and understanding of child exploitation is still a developing field. Ideas and examples from across the sector and beyond may help bring a fresh new perspective or unlock a problem. The resources below are part of this rich conversation...
Read more

Practice Principles

Download the Practice Principles document to explore what this means for professionals, and how to develop your approach to tackling child exploitation.

Please note this is a legacy site and is not being updated. The TCE Programme closed on 31st March 2023.
The Practice Principles and all supporting resources will be available on the TCE microsite until March 31st 2026. Hosting arrangements beyond 2026 will be reviewed by the Department for Education.
© 2024 Tacking Child Exploitation
Registered Office: The Elmhirst Centre, Dartington Hall, Totnes, TQ9 6EL
Company Number: 1485560
Charity Number: 279756
VAT Number: 402196875
Website built by Vu Online

Accept Our Terms And Conditions

By clicking the ‘Accept’ button you, the user, confirm you have read and agree to the Terms and Conditions of Use of this open source website as part of the Tackling Childhood Exploitation Support Programme.

Terms and Conditions of Use

Please read these Terms and Conditions of Use carefully before you start to use the site. By using our site, you indicate that you accept these Terms and Conditions of Use and that you agree to abide by them. If you do not agree to these Terms and Conditions of Use, please refrain from using our site.

Accessing our site

Access to our site is open and public, and we reserve the right to withdraw or amend the service we provide on our site without notice (see below). We will not be liable if, for any reason, our site is unavailable at any time or for any period.

When using our site, you must comply with the provisions of our Acceptable Use Policy (below). You are responsible for making all arrangements necessary for you to have access to our site. You are also responsible for ensuring that all persons who access our site through your internet connection are aware of these Terms and Conditions of Use, and that they comply with them.

Intellectual property rights

The materials of this website have been gifted in kind or commissioned for the purpose of being open and free to access.

As a user, you may print off multiple copies and may download multiple documents.  These documents must only be used to support your work.  You must not pass on any part of the materials on our site to third parties and you must not use any part of the materials on our site for commercial purposes without obtaining a licence to do so from us or our licensors.

As a user of our site, you must not modify the paper or digital copies of any materials you have printed off or downloaded in any way, and you must not use any illustrations, photographs, video or audio sequences or any graphics separately from any accompanying text.   The status of any identified contributors as the authors of material on our site must always be acknowledged.

The identified contributors are the owner or the licensee of all intellectual property rights in our site, and in the material published on it. Those works are protected by copyright laws and treaties around the world. All such rights are reserved.

All trademarks, service marks, trade names, logos, domain names, and any other features of branding are the sole property of the respective contributors.

Our site changes

We aim to update our site regularly, and may change the content at any time. If the need arises, we may suspend access to our site, or close it indefinitely. Any of the material on our site may be out of date at any given time, and we are under no obligation to update such material.

Our liability

The material displayed on our site is provided without any guarantees, conditions or warranties as to its accuracy. To the extent permitted by law, we, other members of our group of companies and third parties connected to us hereby expressly exclude:

  • All conditions, warranties and other Terms and Conditions of Use which might otherwise be implied by statute, common law or the law of equity.
  • Any liability for any direct, indirect or consequential loss or damage incurred by any user in connection with our site or in connection with the use, inability to use, or results of the use of our site, any websites linked to it and any materials posted on it, including:
  • loss of income or revenue;
  • loss of business;
  • loss of profits or contracts;
  • loss of anticipated savings;
  • loss of data;
  • loss of goodwill;
  • wasted management or office time; and whether caused by tort (including negligence), breach of contract or otherwise, even if foreseeable, provided that this condition shall not prevent claims for loss of or damage to your tangible property or any other claims for direct financial loss that are not excluded by any of the categories set out above.

This does not affect our liability for death or personal injury arising from our negligence, nor our liability for fraudulent misrepresentation or misrepresentation as to a fundamental matter, nor any other liability which cannot be excluded or limited under applicable law.

Information about you and your visits to our site

We process information about you in accordance with our Privacy Policy. By using our site, you consent to such processing and you warrant that all data provided by you is accurate.

Viruses, hacking and other offences

You must not misuse our site by knowingly introducing viruses, trojans, worms, logic bombs or other material which is malicious or technologically harmful. You must not attempt to gain unauthorised access to our site, the server on which our site is stored or any server, computer or database connected to our site. You must not attack our site via a denial-of-service attack or a distributed denial-of service attack.

By breaching this provision, you would commit a criminal offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990. We will report any such breach to the relevant law enforcement authorities and we will co-operate with those authorities by disclosing your identity to them. In the event of such a breach, your right to use our site will cease immediately.

We will not be liable for any loss or damage caused by a distributed denial-of-service attack, viruses or other technologically harmful material that may infect your computer equipment, computer programs, data or other proprietary material due to your use of our site or to your downloading of any material posted on it, or on any website linked to it.

Linking to our site

You may link to our home page, provided you do so in a way that is fair and legal and does not damage our reputation or take advantage of it, but you must not establish a link in such a way as to suggest any form of association, approval or endorsement on our part where none exists.

You must not establish a link from any website that is not owned by you.

Our site must not be framed on any other site, nor may you create a link to any part of our site other than the home page. We reserve the right to withdraw linking permission without notice. The website from which you are linking must comply in all respects with the content standards set out in our Acceptable Use Policy (below).

If you wish to make any use of material on our site other than that set out above, please address your request to

Links from our site

Where our site contains links to other sites and resources provided by third parties, these links are provided for your information only. We have no control over the contents of those sites or resources, and accept no responsibility for them or for any loss or damage that may arise from your use of them.

Jurisdiction and applicable law

The English courts will have non-exclusive jurisdiction over any claim arising from, or related to, a visit to our site although we retain the right to bring proceedings against you for breach of these conditions in your country of residence or any other relevant country.

These Terms and Conditions of Use of use and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with them or their subject matter or formation (including non-contractual disputes or claims) shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the law of England and Wales.

International partners

Research in Practice is only able to provide technical support for our web services in English.

In the event of any legal dispute or claim, the courts of England and Wales shall have exclusive jurisdiction.

Storage, retention and access to data will be treated in accordance with our obligations under United Kingdom data protection legislation.

Acceptable Use Policy

Prohibited uses:

You may use our site only for lawful purposes. You may not use our site:

  • In any way that breaches any applicable local, national or international law or regulation.
  • In any way that is unlawful or fraudulent, or has any unlawful or fraudulent purpose or effect.
  • For the purpose of harming or attempting to harm minors in any way.
  • To send, knowingly receive, upload, download, use or re-use any material which does not comply with our content standards (below).
  • To transmit, or procure the sending of, any unsolicited or unauthorised advertising or promotional material or any other form of similar solicitation (spam).
  • To knowingly transmit any data, send or upload any material that contains viruses, Trojan horses, worms, time-bombs, keystroke loggers, spyware, adware or any other harmful programs or similar computer code designed to adversely affect the operation of any computer software or hardware.

You also agree:

  • Not to reproduce, duplicate, copy or re-sell any part of our site in contravention of the provisions of our Terms and Conditions of Use (above).
  • Not to access without authority, interfere with, damage or disrupt:
    • any part of our site;
    • any equipment or network on which our site is stored;
    • any software used in the provision of our site; or
    • any equipment or network or software owned or used by any third party.

Breach of Acceptable Use Policy:

We will determine, in our discretion, whether there has been a breach of this Acceptable Use Policy through your use of our site. When a breach of this policy has occurred, we may take such action as we deem appropriate.

Failure to comply with this Acceptable Use Policy constitutes a material breach of the Terms and Conditions of Use upon which you are permitted to use our site, and may result in our taking all or any of the following actions:

  • Issue of a warning to you.
  • Legal proceedings against you for reimbursement of all costs on an indemnity basis (including, but not limited to, reasonable administrative and legal costs) resulting from the breach.
  • Further legal action against you.
  • Disclosure of such information to law enforcement authorities as we reasonably feel is necessary.

We exclude liability for actions taken in response to breaches of this Acceptable Use Policy. The responses described in this policy are not limited, and we may take any other action we reasonably deem appropriate.

Changes to the Acceptable Use Policy

We may revise this Acceptable Use Policy at any time by amending this page. You are expected to check this page from time to time to take notice of any changes we make, as they are legally binding on you. Some of the provisions contained in this Acceptable Use Policy may also be superseded by provisions or notices published elsewhere on our site.

Your concerns

If you have any concerns about material which appears on our site, please contact

Thank you for visiting our site.