Children at breaking point: Knives, guns, bullies...a shocking look at growing up in today's UK

As a survey of 1,700 young people paints a damning picture of the way we treat the young, we ask our own panel - just how do they cope?

Mary Dejevsky
Sunday 08 June 2008 00:54

The rights of a generation of children in Britain are being eroded by poverty, unhappiness and fear of crime, the largest report on the state of childhood in six years reveals.

The report, seen exclusively by The Independent on Sunday, says that young people in the UK are further away than ever from living in a society in which they are valued, respected and enjoyed. The damning report to the United Nations paints a bleak picture of growing up today in a country where children have limited access to sport and play areas and are put under pressure from too many exams.

The basics of a happy childhood – playing safely outside and enjoying learning at school – are now precious commodities, the report says. In their place are a routine lack of respect from adults and a culture of crime. With knife crime claiming the lives of 31 young people so far this year, the report reveals that one in eight children has carried a knife or a gun in the past 12 months.

The verdict, by a cross-section of 1,700 children aged nine to 17 and the Children's Rights Alliance for England (Crae), representing more than 100 charities, will be presented to ministers tomorrow and to the UN in Geneva on Wednesday. It casts a shadow over the promise made in the Government's Children's Plan to "make this country the best place in the world for children and young people to grow up".

Today the IoS gives a panel of children aged 11 to 13, above, the opportunity to have their say about being a child in Britain.

The report warns that the UK falls "well short" of meeting minimum standards set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), agreed in 1989 by every country in the world except the US and Somalia.

Reports by the UK's Children's Commissioners will also be handed over to the UN. The world body will use the documents as evidence for its own report on Britain in October.

At the end of this month, Unicef will publish a league table for wellbeing among children up to five in rich countries; Britain is expected to perform poorly. The UK came bottom out of 21 wealthy nations in 2007 for happiness, relationships and health and safety for older children.

In 2002, the UN criticised Britain's failure to put the best interests of children at the heart of legislation. Yet Crae's report says nearly 30 laws that in part breach the rights of children have been passed since 2002. The organisation lists 100 urgent actions that need to be taken if the Government is to fulfil all its obligations under the convention.

The children's half of the report makes 14 recommendations to the UN, echoing those submitted by children in Wales and Scotland at the end of last year.

Government figures to be published tomorrow will show it is likely to miss its target of halving child poverty by 2010 – the number of children living in poverty is rising. The Secretary of State for Children, Ed Balls, writing in the IoS today, admits "a 'good childhood' is not a reality for every child" but pledges to do all he can to make this a "golden age for our children". He says child poverty is a "scar on our national conscience". More than three million people live below the poverty line. The Government has pledged an extra £1bn to fight this.

The report comes against a backdrop of headlines of teenagers caught up in violent crime, curbs on young binge drinkers and pupils branded "unteachable". "Children's rights are a matter of life and death," it says. "Since the last examination in 2002, we believe our country has moved much further away from ... a culture that enjoys, respects and values children.

"While ministers, the Prime Minister included, appear comfortable using the language of rights and social justice when talking about children abroad, there is a reluctance to acknowledge that children in England have rights ... and that children's rights abuses are happening in our own institutions and communities."


More than 78 per cent of children surveyed said they get stressed, mainly because of school tests and exams. One in 10 children never enjoys school.

By the age of 16, children will have sat at least 70 tests. Some 13 per cent say bullying is an issue, and 4.2 per cent say the problem is so great that they have never felt safe in school. Gay, Traveller and ethnic-minority children most often report being bullied.

Nearly 75 per cent said their school only listened to their opinions sometimes, while 5.5 per cent said they were never listened to. One in 10 children thought their teachers did not respect them, while the same proportion felt other children did not respect them. The reports call for student councils in every school.

Law and order

A shocking 12 per cent of children said they had carried a knife or gun in the past 12 months. A third of those did so to protect themselves, but 22.6 per cent did so to threaten or hurt someone.

Half of children believed children in their area committed crimes because they were bored.

The UNCRC requires that children be imprisoned as a "very last resort". Yet the charities state that nearly 25,000 children in England and Wales were given custodial sentences between 2003 and 2006. "The law has been changed to introduce punishment as an explicit purpose of sentencing for children," the report says. It condemns the "deeply punitive and abusive" treatment of children and calls for a full public inquiry into the deaths in custody of 30 children since 1990.

It condemns the use of terms such as "yobs" and "thugs" to describe children, in newspapers but also Government press releases and ministerial speeches.

Health and wellbeing

One in 10 children have a clinically recognisable mental health disorder.

A third of children say there are not enough local play areas. Some 82 per cent found broken glass, 50 per cent found condoms and 25 per cent hypodermic needles in parks and playgrounds. Four out of 10 say their local play facilities had closed down, while half were stopped from playing outside by their parents.

Refugee children say they are often unable to find translators or advocates to help them in doctors' surgeries. And the lack of enough safe, well-staffed shelters and hostels meant that depressed and self-harming children often had nowhere to turn for help.

Families and care

Both the charities and children call for an outright ban on smacking. Some 14.6 per cent were hit at home, while one in 20 children fear being hurt by people at home.

The charities' report warns of a 14-year difference in the life expectancy between children born into the richest and poorest households. In London alone, 41 babies would be saved each year were it not for poverty and inequality. Social mobility in the UK is "no better now than it was in the 1970s". The UNCRC requires governments to give positive support to parents, yet they are being penalised "more than ever" for their children's behaviour.

It warns of "massive erosion" in the privacy rights of children since 2002. The police hold DNA samples of up to 360,000 children, 82,000 of whom are innocent. Many nurseries and schools use electronic equipment to monitor children's behaviour.

Discrimination and choices

More than nine out of 10 children think they are judged on what they wear, while some 78.2 per cent believe the media paints an unfair picture of young people.

The report warns that asylum-seeking and refugee children do not get the same levels of child protection as other vulnerable children. While there is a battle to detain terror suspects for 42 days without charge, asylum- seeking families are detained for weeks and months without any judicial scrutiny.

Carolyne Willow, Crae's national co-ordinator, said: "We, and the Government, have to face the fact that human rights abuses don't just happen to adults, they happen to children – and they are happening in our country."

Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of the Children's Society, said: "Both the young people's report and the report from the coalition of children's charities highlight many breaches of children's rights that require urgent action."

Additional reporting by Ian Griggs, Jonathan Owen and Mark Jewsbury

Fenner Clark

Age 12, from Worcester Park, London. He is a keen cyclist and judo enthusiast

On respect from adults

Some adults judge you on what clothes you wear and just lump everyone together depending on that alone. The media does the same thing. It puts everyone in the same group and generalises. I think that is very unfair. You see big groups hanging around, but they don't always mean trouble.

Laura Gearey

Age 13, from Blackfen, Kent, is a member of St John Ambulance Cadets

On being listened to in school

Teachers listen quite well, but sometimes you get the impression they can't be bothered to talk to you. We had a school council at primary school which worked well – we asked for bike sheds and got them. We have a council at secondary, but I haven't seen any changes come from it.

Sofia Yasin

Age 12, lives in Luton. She is a participant in Youth Parliament

On exams and counsellors

Exams should be spread out over the year. I have four or five next week and we all get stressed, especially about the SATs. As for counselling, there are mentors we can go to, but their reactions are pretty slow. I had a friend who used to cut herself, but the mentor did not talk to her for at least a month.

Joshua Newstead

Age 12, from Bromley in Kent. He is interested in environmental issues

On divorce and religion

Personally, I have no experience of parents splitting up, but I think that children should be able to choose which parent they want to stay with. I also think that children should also be able to choose which religion they want to follow.

Eithne Loughran

Age 12, from Hackney, London. She is from an Irish background

On sport and smacking

I think the cost for children who want to do sport is too much. All the swimming pools near where I live cost up to £2 for a child to get in. I think that is quite expensive. I also think that smacking should be banned. I don't think it's nice, hitting children.

Yll Buzoku

Age 12, from Woolwich, south-east London. He was born in Kosovo

On discrimination

My parents came here while travelling the world but got stuck here during the war. I have not been a victim of discrimination, but there are a few Chinese people at my school who some people are extremely rude to. It's not fair at all. Sometimes if I speak Kosovan to my friend we get bullied.

Morgan Daniels

Age 12, from Bushey, Hertfordshire. A participant in Youth Parliament

On privacy and ID cards

I don't have a problem with ID cards. It could even be a good idea, but I don't like the idea of teenagers on a database. It is not a good thought. People should not be put under surveillance. The only exception is if a child has done something wrong and there is the possibility of them doing it again.

Adeeb Abdul Razak

Age 12, from Dagenham, Essex. He is from an Indian background

On the right to vote

Children should have a say about who they want to see as the next Prime Minister or the next Mayor of London. They should have a say because only older people have the choice at the moment and children don't have it. We want to express our views, too.

Sally Milner

Age 13, from Kingston, Surrey. She has been a scout since the age of six

On knife crime

There is no need for children to carry knives. One day recently, the police did a security check at school. We didn't like it. The police kept asking the black children if they were carrying weapons, but they weren't as pushy with the white children. Some of the black kids got a bit feisty about that.

Laura Bizzey

Age 12, from Hollesley, East Sussex. She has a muscle-wasting condition

On play facilities

We do have play parks near where I live, but I don't go to them because of my disability. I would like it if the play parks had better access for people like me, but they are all aimed at people who want to fling themselves across the monkey bars and lots of climbing things. But they're no good for people like me without muscles.

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