One in four youths carries a knife in school or on the street

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One in four teenage boys is armed, while half of all teenagers have committed a crime by the time they reach 15, according to one of the largest surveys into juvenile crime in Britain.

One in four teenage boys is armed, while half of all teenagers have committed a crime by the time they reach 15, according to one of the largest surveys into juvenile crime in Britain.

A new report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the UK's largest social research charity, has uncovered a trend among boys as young as 11 to walk the streets and go to school carrying knives.

The survey's findings, based on interviews with 14,000 schoolchildren, aged 11 to 15, in English, Scottish and Welsh secondary schools, will add to fears that crime is spiralling out of control, creating a new generation of young thugs.

Last week, Sean McInerney, 12, who terrorised his neighbours in Liverpool, armed with a baseball bat and knives, was banned from the area under a new, anti-social behaviour order. Meanwhile, 13-year-old triplets in Kent, Shane, Sarah and Natalie Morris, were banned from Gillingham for a "catalogue of unacceptable" offences.

One senior police officer told The Independent on Sunday that children had an "increasing propensity to use violence", while a senior Department of Health adviser said teenage boys were now a major public health risk.

The report, entitled Youth At Risk?, also reveals one in five 14-year-olds admitted attacking someone "intending to hurt them seriously" while 10 per cent had committed at least one burglary. One third of 14- and 15-year-olds have vandalised property, and a quarter have shoplifted. As children get older, the incidences of crime also rises.

In the youngest age group, more boys commit criminal acts than girls but the gender gap narrows as the children get older.

The study, carried out in conjunction with Communities That Care, a charity operating schemes to reduce crime in towns such as Swansea, Barnsley and Coventry, concludes: "The findings are disquieting. There seems to be a sizeable minority of young people especially boys for whom violence is not only an active possibility in their daily lives but also one for which they emotionally and physically prepare themselves."

A senior Government health adviser believes working-class teenage boys are now a "major public health issue". Professor John Ashton, in charge of public health in the north west of England, describing them as a neglected and vulnerable group, and called for a national strategy to prevent a "disastrous" slide into drugs, alcohol and casual violence.

"Tonight, where I live, in an urban village south of Liverpool," Professor Ashton said, "hordes of kids, some of them very young, will hang around a dimly lit car park, get some lager from the off-licence and smash windows. The police say they're just hanging around. Schools say it's not their responsibility. But it entrenches rule-breaking and it's the soil on which much more serious things grow later on."

Rick Naylor, vice president of the Police Superintendents' Association, said: "Well over 50 per cent of the people we deal with for crime are under the age of 17. Officers up and down the country will say there is a much greater propensity for youngsters to use violence than there has been in the past."

Concern about violent behaviour has led education ministers to reverse a key policy aimed at reducing social exclusion. Although New Labour came to power saying that schools should expel many fewer pupils, Estelle Morris is now encouraging head teachers to get rid of violent troublemakers.

Nigel de Gruchy, of the teachers' union NASUWT, claimed violent attacks on teachers had risen an estimated 50 per cent in the last year alone: "It can be terrifying being a teacher. We get more and more reports of teachers being intimidated."

Professor Ellis Cashmore, who has written on policing and crime, said, "Weapons have taken on a symbolic importance. It is something imported from the US."

Young outlaws: 'We know it's wrong, but it's the society we're in'

By Andrew Johnson

The Kyzer and Four by Four will only give their MC names. They are both 16 and expect to do well in their GCSEs. They live in King's Cross, north London, and have been involved in some kind of crime since they were 12.

"We don't go shoplifting any more,'' they say. "We've moved on to the next step. Shoplifting is for younger kids. Now we buy cars and drive them around illegally. Where we live we know people who can do a fake licence and credit card fraud. It's a bit hard to pull off but if you do you get respect."

Four by Four says that he was once stopped by the police and got away with it by using forged documents.

"When we were shoplifting we would steal caps, belts, videos, things we wanted or needed. It's harder now there are cameras and security tags everywhere. If we got caught now we would be laughed at. When you get caught it really hits you. We got caught stealing jumpers from Gap, taken to the police station and cautioned.''

The Kyzer says: "When my dad came to pick me up from the station it was really embarrassing. I've calmed down now. Two years ago I started playing football with a professional football club [he spent last year on the youth book of a leading Premiership side] and stopped hanging around with the people in this area. If it wasn't for football we would have got really out of order.'' Four by Four adds: "Football saved us. I could have got into drugs.''

Kyzer says: "We haven't got any youth clubs around here or facilities. There's nothing to do except hang around on the streets. You feel safe hanging around in a gang, you feel secure. Our parents are strict. We know it is wrong what we do ­ not everybody does know it's wrong ­ but it's the society we are in."