Being middle class makes boys a target

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Indy Lifestyle Online

THE Bash Street Kids have always given Lord Snooty and his school chums a hard time. But today there is a disturbing edge of violence to the taunting which goes on outside the school gates, where a smart blazer acts as a red rag. Middle-class pupils at posh(-ish) schools are becoming victims of dangerous schoolboy battles which are not so much about race but class.

The problems of school rivalries were highlighted last week with the attack on 14-year-old Euan Blair, son of the Prime Minister. The surprising thing about it was that it hadn't happened before - not because he is the son of Tony Blair, but because he is just the sort of lad who gets picked on - a boy in a uniform, attending what is perceived to be a toffs' school - in his case the grant-maintained Roman Catholic Oratory in Fulham, south-west London.

Most boys of 13 have experienced at least one incident which dents their confidence - whether it is a a kicking from rival schoolboys or a mugging at knife-point. Young teenagers are easy prey for older boys because they have not yet had their rough edges rubbed off, particularly if they are at a selective or independent school.

The scale of the problem is difficult to assess because so many incidents go unreported, even to parents. But according to Michele Elliott, director of the children's charity Kidscape, the problem of violent school rivalry is getting worse. "It's a burning issue," she says. For some the experience is so distressing that they refuse to attend school.

A straw poll she conducted recently highlighted how common the problem is. When she talked to a class of 22 13-year-old boys in a middle-class north London school recently, 20 said they had experienced some form of attack, yet only one had told his parents. It is not hard to see why: teenagers do not want to relinquish the precious new freedoms their parents have just begun to grant.

When children do report the incidents to their parents, they can be are almost blase in their response. As one mother with three teenage sons at an independent school in West London puts it: "All teenage boys get mugged. It's a fact of life - they just have to learn to deal with it."

Michael, 15, has endured three frightening incidents - an attack by a gang of five on the Tube going home to north London and two of demands for money. "We just did what they said: we put our arms up and they searched us," he says. "It wasn't nice but it wasn't too bad. The Tube attack was difficult to forget because it was on the route we take every day."

Michael has received little advice on such situations from his school. And while many schools invite police liaison officers in, their main concern seems to be drugs.

Another boy, Nathan, has endured three recent attacks, the last a week before the incident involving Euan Blair. Nathan who, like Euan, is 14, was mugged while shopping in Oxford Street with a friend. Later the police said half-term breaks always offered rich pickings for thieves. Such experiences encourage teenagers to carry their money in their socks and hide their watches at an alarmingly early age. But there is not much they can do to disguise their unbroken voices and their middle-class air.

What makes the situation often worse is the public's refusal to help or even to acknowledge the problem.

When two older teenagers approached Nathan and his friend from behind, one threw his arms round him, said he had a knife and demanded Nathan's plastic carrier. Because they didn't fancy the contents they took the receipt to get the money back. Meanwhile Nathan's friend ran to get help but the person he stopped did not want to know.

Like most parents in his situation, Nathan's father Michael is puzzled. "The first time Nathan had money stolen in the street he was really upset because it seemed so dangerous and frightening," he says. "What upset him this time is that he didn't have the nous to avoid it. He just felt so humiliated and disappointed with himself.

"It's hard for us as parents, because with most things you can say when it happened to me I did this or that But I haven't any experience of this. You keep thinking, maybe we shouldn't be letting him do these things at his age. Instead we have long conversations about how we can avoid it happening again. My view is that these things are going to happen but it's very unlikely that he's going to get badly hurt. But that doesn't make it any less frightening for him."

Police say they do go into schools to talk about personal safety as much as crime and drugs. But Michelle Elliott of Kidscape believes that schools could do much more to prevent incidents and prepare their pupils. After fights at her 16-year-old son's school involving gangs from a rival comprehensive the parents organised their own patrol. "A few parents standing on the street corner with cameras is worth a thousand policemen - these kids don't want their photographs taken."

For parents, the situation is a particularly difficult one, as they try to balance the need to encourage some independence in their children with the need to protect them. Some offer their children lifts and mobile phones and self-defence courses. Others like Michael's mother Juliet, believe that experience - getting out and about - is the best protection. She is relieved that her son now carries a personal alarm but would feel better if she thought anyone would respond if he set it off. When she recently stood by a teenager who was being attacked on a bus the boy was amazed. "Nobody had ever helped him before," she says. "I was upset that he was so surprised - it should be the norm that people stop and help, otherwise teenage boys will see themselves as on their own.

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