The kids <i>aren't</i> all right: Britain's angry children

Shocking new figures show that violence among Britain's young children has reached unprecedented levels &ndash; with thousands of under-11s being suspended from school each year. Clare Dwyer Hogg talks to the parents, teachers and social workers at the front line
Click to follow

By the age of 10, James was so physically aggressive to adults and children that his parents couldn't cope with his level of violence. If he was told he couldn't do something, he would hit and kick them. Or he would destroy his bedroom, throwing and smashing whatever came to hand. He'd been like that since the age of four. His parents, who had learning difficulties, did what they could, but found it hard to be consistent. James is now in a residential school, away from his family.

He is not an isolated case. In November 2008, figures were released as a result of a question in parliament by the Shadow Secretary for Children, Schools and Families, Michael Gove: in 2006, 3,750 children aged four and five were suspended from school; 890 of those were exclusions of five-year-olds who had assaulted an adult; 420 were four years old and 140 were three years old; 1,010 under-fives were excluded for assaults on other children. The suspensions of children aged from two to 11 years old altogether numbered more than 45,500 – this was up from 40,000 the year before.

Julie Crichley is a mother with first-hand experience of violent children. Peter, the eldest of her six children, has just been sent away to boarding school, in an attempt to calm him down. He's 13. "When he was little I just thought he was just going through the terrible twos," she says. "But as he got older the tantrums got worse. He used to lose the plot big time." Peter's aggressive behaviour at home spilled into school life, which resulted in exclusion at an early age. "He was kicked out of school in Year 2 and ever since then hasn't had a stable school life," Crichley says. This in turn impacted on the frustration he expressed at home, and it wasn't long before he turned on his mother: "Once he gave me a black eye, and I took him to the social services to ask for help because I had no control over him."

At risk of having her other children taken into care because of Peter's violence towards them, she was assigned an Intensive Support Team by social services. Jack, Peter's younger brother, was also becoming abusive. "Jack's behaviour spiralled out of control. He was battering his little brothers because he used to get battered." The team workers advised Crichley, for a start, that she should let her children play outside. "They were cooped up, bored out of their heads – I think I smothered them," she says. "The team helped me set boundaries, which was brilliant." Simple things she didn't think would work, such as sticker charts for good behaviour, changed the dynamic of the family. She's also changed her own reactions to their behaviour: "I used to scream and swear, and if I screamed they'd scream back. Now they don't swear at me, or scream and shout as much."

This story is repeated up and down the country. David Lewis, a social worker in the north of England, sees countless families who just cannot cope with the aggressive behaviour of their children. Ryan, one of his cases, was excluded from two primary schools by the time he was eight years old. In his next school, he was sent home most days by lunchtime for running out of lessons, shouting and swearing at the teachers and throwing chairs. "He would often only be in school for an hour or two before being restrained," Lewis says. "And without specialist input, all the school could do was manage his behaviour – not educate him." Meanwhile, outside school, he was hanging out with older children and getting picked up by the police for low-level criminal damage. "We didn't hear about Ryan until he was eight, by which time his problems were already very severe," Lewis says. "If we can work with children when they're younger, there's more scope to change these patterns." Long before social

services were involved, Ryan's home life was difficult. Because his mother had a serious drug addiction, Ryan and his sister moved to live with an elderly relative, who was already struggling with limited space and finances. With emotional problems too overwhelming for his carer, Ryan's behaviour steadily spiralled out of control.

Now Ryan attends a specialist residential school, and only returns to his family at the weekends. Lewis hopes he'll be able to come back into mainstream schooling soon. "He's doing well: there's structure and boundaries, but it also works because they give him warmth and self-esteem, and he's learnt that he can do things. Children with these problems spend their lives excluded from things: they're shouted at, thrown out, and feel so bad about themselves that the only way to get attention is in a negative way."

This seems to correlate with research commissioned by the National Union of Teachers and published in August last year. The original report – Teachers Under Pressure – by Professors Maurice Galton and John MacBeath at Cambridge University, was not supposed to be about child aggression, but inadvertently brought to light the real problems in this area. In 2002, the pair conducted classroom-based research about what teachers found stopped them teaching effectively. They went back in 2006 to update their work, and found a dramatic change. "In 2002 the teachers had ranked six things that impeded their teaching, none of which was disruption. In 2006 disruption was the first thing on the list," Professor Galton says. "They said the same things – it's a minority of parents, but they have trouble coping with their children, and this reflects back on us." Children, they found, were staying up until the early hours of the morning – one mother was triumphant that she'd got her child to bed at 1am rather than 4am, Galton says – or were watching films beyond their age group. "The interruptions were there in 2002, but the teachers dealt with it. By 2006, there were more examples of extreme cases of violent children and more confrontational responses when the children were told off for minor offences. They tended to be more aggressive."

And when the children who are displaying aggression are very young, getting to the root of their problem can be difficult. Jess Collins, a primary school teacher in the south of England, recently witnessed violent behaviour from a new four-year-old girl in her class. "In lesson time she was intelligent, very polite and well behaved, but at play time she would become violent towards the other girls, kicking and punching them when no one was looking," Collins says. "Her behaviour really worried me because it was so extreme. When I confronted her about kicking somebody she broke down and became inconsolable. She couldn't tell me why she had done it." A few days later, the little girl left the school, and soon after Collins was visited by a social worker. "The social services had discovered she was being sexually abused by her mother's new partner, and had contracted a sexually transmitted disease," Collins says.

Brian Woods, a documentary maker with True Vision, recently filmed in three schools, charting the experiences of violence in the classroom. Throughout his career, Woods has caught some shocking footage on camera – including The Dying Rooms which showed extreme deprivation in Chinese orphanages – but he still found the experience in UK schools eye-opening. "One of the things that shocked me was the degree of physical restraint that was sometimes necessary," he says. "Especially the sight of three adults carrying a child face down, while he was kicking and screaming." The child was a nine-year-old who was refusing to leave the playground and go into class. "They couldn't control him." Woods was worried the school would ask him to take out the scene, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. "They said that's what we do every day – parents know that. I was quite shocked."

What also disturbed Woods was that the behaviour children were exhibiting in play contained traces of violent experience too. He filmed five- and six-year-olds talking about the slasher films they'd been watching; one admitted he'd had nightmares after watching a particularly gruesome horror film with his grandmother. Another child play-acted his home life by throwing a blanket over his head and staggering around: "He was falling over, saying 'I'm drunk, I'm drunk – you're going to beat me up? I'll smash your fucking head in first'," Woods recalls. "This seven-year-old had experienced some dark times."

It is inevitable, of course, that the consequences of bad experiences outside school are carried into the classroom. Tom Watkins, a teacher in south London, frequently sees children, as young as four, displaying angry behaviour that seemingly needs no provocation. "I taught a four-year-old boy who was displaying some very anti-social behaviour: name-calling, hitting and swearing at teachers," he says. The boy attended Breakfast Club and the after-school Kids' Club, which meant he was at school from 8am until 6pm every day. "He became very violent," Watkins says. "He would punch other children in the back in unprovoked attacks, or trip them over and yell at them to shut up if they cried." A behaviour support teacher who visited his house suggested his violence was due in part to the difficulties his mother, in her early twenties, was having with bonding with him. The child was the result of a violent relationship, and his mother seemed to resent him, giving him little physical contact or affection. "The boy ended up attending a special behaviour unit for one day a week," says Watkins. Alex O'Connoll, a teacher in Portsmouth, echoes Watkins' experiences. "When I was a Newly Qualified Teacher I found the behaviour absolutely shocking," he says. "But you learn to deal with it: it's not what I signed up for, but it's part and parcel of the job."

In an attempt to help these aggressive children in a different way, many schools are turning to Nurture Groups. The ethos of the Nurture Group Network – which is not always government funded, depending on the area – is that the children have problems, rather than the children being the problem. "Many of these children can't socialise, because they've got no trusting relationships with adults," says Angela Sarkis, the organisation's chief executive. There are around 1,000 groups in schools across the UK, and the point of a Nurture Room within a school is to mirror what family life could be: there is a table where the teachers (usually two, often male and female) can share meals with the children, a sink so they can help with the washing-up afterwards, and a sofa where conversations can be had. Constructive play is also encouraged – there is a lot of Lego around. "They learn how to behave and how to express themselves," Sarkis says. "The rest of us who had decent lives take for granted using a knife and fork, but many children arrive in school totally unsocialised, and because of that everything is a huge challenge. It's not surprising they fall behind academically, and especially if they can't express themselves verbally – it's easier to express aggression."

Vitally, Sarkis says, Nurture Groups don't take the children out of the normal school environment – they go to the group three times a week on average, which means they maintain their peer groups. "Some children will come to school not having had breakfast or tea the night before," she says. "Children are not all in the same place when they arrive in the classroom, and the sooner we realise one size doesn't fit all, the better." She says many children with a difficult start end up in the criminal justice system where the prognosis for them is bleak, and that injecting resources at the earliest possible stage so they're put on a par with their contemporaries makes sense. "This is not about bad parenting," she continues. "Just that parents can't give what they didn't receive as children."

One 10-year-old girl who was often in trouble at her school in Manchester was particularly confrontational with teachers, shouting, swearing and running out of class at every opportunity. Sheila Coffey, the social worker who investigated her home life, discovered that she was spending time with older children in her area, and regularly coming home drunk in the early hours of the morning. "The parents had difficult childhoods themselves," Coffey says, "and didn't see the link between their own alcohol addiction, the neglect of their child, and her resulting behaviour. Even after extensive help, they felt she was inexplicably difficult." The girl was eventually taken into care. "The thing is," Coffey continues, "behaviour is not an automatic response – it's complex and developed in stages from the early years of childhood. You can't just change the situation and expect the behaviour to change immediately. There has to be a structure." As an illustration of this, she tells the story of an 18-month-old child she works with who has just been brought into foster care. "She came from a home where the parents had serious drug and alcohol addictions, and she witnessed a lot of domestic violence. Now, if she's not being paid enough attention, she smashes toys against the wall, bursts into floods of tears, or has a tantrum. She also has real problems sleeping at night. You can see over time how this could develop into disruptive behaviour in school." The job of the carer now, she says, is to be consistent about boundaries, and to be able to tell the little girl, "No", while being emotionally warm and available, building the supportive relationship that should have been there from the beginning. "When I talk about being positive and building self-esteem, people will think all these children need is old-fashioned discipline," she says. "That can work at age two, but not by itself at eight or nine."

Claude Knights, the director of the children's charity Kidscape, is familiar with this. "We live in a blame culture, but it's about shared responsibility," she says. Knights thinks that lack of parental support is often key. "In the work we've done in nursery schools, where teachers are dealing with violent behaviour, there's a lot of talk about lack of boundaries," she says. "Children are coming in who have never heard 'No', let alone knowing how to respond to it. At home they're not practising the social skills you'd have expected." In the past five or 10 years, she says, teachers in reception class have learnt not to expect basic skills such as sharing or interacting with others. No real concept of what an authority figure is can often be a factor: "What we're saying is humans are not born with these skills, they're learned behaviour. And that is at the root."

While these children are labelled troublemakers, often they're coping with situations that adults would find hard to deal with. Their behaviour is only a sign of a greater need. "My experience of violent children is that they're responding normally and appropriately to what they've been exposed to," says Tania Holland, an inner-city youth worker. "The problem is not the children, it's the adults. Children are in our care to be shaped by us and nurtured by us. I've never met a violent child that hasn't been failed massively."

Names and locations have been changed to protect the identities of the children