PC Simon Odong talks to James Cracknell about his work with Enfield’s safer schools programme and the influence of his own turbulent childhood
Simon Odong arrived in the UK in 1990 as a young boy, unable to speak English, having fled a civil war in Uganda where he’d grown up.
Today Simon is a police officer who works in 65 primary schools across Enfield, helping to motivate the next generation to make the right choices at an early age.
Drawing on his experiences and his incredibly difficult childhood, Simon wants to steer children to follow a route through their education that keeps them safe and avoids delving into criminality.
Simon, a Metropolitan Police officer since 2005, told the Dispatch: “I want to help guide young adults and my job is to guide them, together with parents and teachers, on their life choices as they develop.
“It’s things like being online and peer pressure and where that can lead them, and encouraging them to take responsibility for every choice they make.”
When children are preparing to leave primary school, Simon argues, they are at a crucial age. “All the things you know before you are eleven have an impact on your life,” he says.
“It is about going in and doing presentations and assisting parents who might be having difficulties and speaking to pupils individually and talking about my own story.”
Simon’s family went into hiding when he was five years old, hoping to avoid being caught up in the conflict that ravaged Uganda for eight years, starting in 1986. His father fled the country and lost contact with the rest of the family, with each thinking the other was dead for years, until they were reunited and emigrated to England.
Being able to share such a story of overcoming difficulties during his childhood gives Simon a unique ability to motivate pupils to make positive choices in their own lives.
“If I can do it, anyone can do it,” he says. “I want to motivate children to be a better version of themselves.
“I felt guilty when I was 18 that I was alive when a lot of other people my age didn’t make it. So when I see children make bad choices, when they could make different choices, it gets to me personally.
“You can concentrate on the negative but it doesn’t get us anywhere. I want to make a difference.”
What are some of the challenges children face today? “In my day everything we did remained anonymous, but now everything is online with images posted on social media, and then when you get a job interview it can affect you.
“Gangs are glamourised in the way they are portrayed. People are social creatures and they want to belong and if their parents are neglecting them and they are vulnerable, joining a gang can be appealing.
“My job is to get them as much support as possible. They might think that joining a gang gives them an easier life but it is not sustainable.
“Up to the age of eleven is the most crucial time to talk to children, before they start secondary school, and that is the most important age. If we don’t get it right before they get to secondary school we are just chasing our tails.
“If they can see police as humans it gives them confidence. It is about preventing them from getting involved in crime, which for me is more rewarding than putting handcuffs on them.”
Over the last year, Simon has been forced to talk to schoolchildren via Zoom, but that will soon change and he his looking forward to getting back into the classroom.
“I am very passionate about it,” he says. “I can’t wait to get back into schools.”