Tiny tearaways admit that they take knives to school

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Sitting in a comfortable chair with his feet not quite touching the floor, nine-year-old Shadon talks quietly and hesitantly about his life as a gangster.

It's not very convincing. Small even for his age and holding his hand shyly in front of his face as he speaks, he hardly makes an intimidating physical presence.

But trying telling that to some of the adults who have had run-ins with Shadon and his neighbourhood friends, who spend their evenings spray-painting cars, smashing windows and facing down anyone who tries to stop them.

Shadon and his friends might not be the Kray twins, but the education authorities in Waltham Forest, east London, are aware that, without early intervention, the nine-year-old tearaways of today may become the gunmen of the future.

"There are 20 of us and we all live close," Shadon said. "The oldest is 11 and the youngest is eight. Some of my friends smash windows, so I will smash a window. Me and my friends started spray–painting a car window. A man asked us what we were doing. We just stared at him. We are not scared of a man."

Shadon admits that he will "bully other children, threaten them", and says he has taken a knife to his primary school.

Geraldine Emson believes him. Ms Emson is the teacher in charge of Waltham Forest's pupil assessment unit for children aged 5 to 11. She said most of the 15 children who attend the unit were victims of "domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse or neglect". Not one lives with both of its natural parents.

She is working to build up the self-esteem of children like Jordan, a nine-year-old boy who has already been in trouble with police, and Shana, an 11-year-old girl who admits giving wish lists to boys in her gang who go out "jacking" shops. The project involves giving intensive supervision and support to primary school children who are identified as being at risk of permanent exclusion. It is hoped that after two terms the children can gradually be reintegrated back into the school system.

The unit puts an emphasis on literacy skills and children are taught to take responsibility for their conduct by assessing their own behaviour at the end of each day.

Ms Emson said: "Children who come here have lost the idea that school should be about enjoying themselves. We are saying, come back and learn and enjoy it."