Educational authorities are either unwilling or unable torecognise or deal with the abuse, often leaving victims in the same school, or even class, as their attackers.
"There has been a noticeable increase and it is being moved down the age range, down to junior schools. Everybody is trying to hush it up," said Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.
The latest Home Office figures show the number of under 14s found guilty of sex offences increased by more than a third between 1987 and 1997, while in the past four years the number of offenders under 18 leapt by 30 per cent.
Nearly half were freed on supervision orders, allowing them to return to school. A total of 469 children were found guilty of sex offences in 1997, up from 368 in 1993.
The problem was highlighted this week when a nine-year-old boy accused of sexually assaulting young girls was suspended from a school in South Tyneside after 150 parents signed a petition calling for his withdrawal.
In another case this week, a judge sparked fury after saying a sex assault on a 13-year-old girl by two teenage boys was a case of "youthful exuberance". The boys, who were aged 13 and 14 at the time of the assault in September last year, were given supervision orders after admitting indecent assault in playing fields in Droylsden, Greater Manchester.
Leading researchers say there is no reliable data on the extent of sexual abuse by under 18s, partly because children are often reluctant to implicate their peers. Cases raise extreme emotions among teachers and parents.
Mr de Gruchy said: "It's a sign of the times. Children are learning things pretty early. Twenty years ago you never heard of this. There's now beginning to be a trickle of cases of quite a worrying kind.
"In some of the cases we hear about, teachers did not hear about it. Often it's quite outrageous because the kid is forced back to the school and the victim is forced to live with them. The trauma for the victim is terrible.
"It's essential for the kids to be expelled and given another chance at another school. It's quite outrageous that victims have to deal with their attackers in class."
Michele Elliott, director and founder of the children's charity Kidscape, warned that most schools "are hiding behind the national curriculum, saying that they don't have time to deal with sexual abuse among classmates".
She said: "We are being derelict in our duty to them. Schools don't want to get a bad reputation and don't want the authorities to get involved in the running of the school so they ignore the problem.
"It is a much under-recognised problem. Some of the inhibitions against it have fallen. Young boys could be getting hold of this."
Professor Kevin Browne of the University of Birmingham, a leading expert on forensic and family psychology, called for all teachers and other professionals working with children to receive training in dealing with sensitive cases.
He said: "People are usually reluctant to become involved. Incidents usually have to be extremely serious to come to attention. Most of the time we turn a blind eye to what children do.
"This needs very careful training of teachers and residential care workers so that when they discover two children in an inappropriate sexual situation they will deal with it appropriately."
Danger in the Playground
A 16-YEAR-OLD girl dropped out of education after a sex assault by two boys in Handsworth, Birmingham. The boys, aged 12 and 13, admitted indecent assault at Birmingham Crown Court earlier this month after the attack in a school lavatory last November. Both boys were given supervision orders.
FOUR BOYS were cleared of raping and indecently assaulting a girl at their west London school in a landmark three-week trial at the Old Bailey last February. A nine-year-old girl had claimed the gang, aged between nine and 11, had attacked her in the school lavatory.
MEMBERS OF the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers took strike action at Bishop Llandaff school in Cardiff in 1991 after four boys who had sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl in class were re-
admitted to the school.
JUDGE PETER Lakin was condemned by child welfare groups earlier this week after describing a sex assault on a 13-year-old schoolgirl a "game that went too far".Reuse content