Paul Firth: Fightback begins at home against the disturbing rise in child violence

READING reports of an 11-year-old boy “fighting for his life after a vicious attack”, we cannot help wonder what sort of person would cause such injuries to one so young, and to his even younger friend.

When we read further that the police are questioning two other boys, aged 10 and 11, much sadder and more fundamental questions have to be asked.

None of us knows at this stage what happened at Edlington, near Doncaster. We should not jump to any conclusion, although we are surely entitled – even compelled – to express our horror at the injuries suffered and to hope that the young victims suffer no lasting physical or emotional harm.

Any news item like this inevitably brings back memories of the James Bulger case, where two boys, then aged 10, perpetrated the most appalling and fatal assault on an infant short of his third birthday. We all wanted to believe that this type of violence could never happen again.

Sixteen years have passed since that attack and the behaviour of some of our young people has deteriorated. At its conference next week, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers will discuss the results of a recent survey among its members. Almost a quarter had to deal with physical violence, directed at staff or another pupil.

More worrying is the 80 per cent who had been abused or threatened by parents, angered by the disciplinary measures, limited though they are, aimed at controlling disruption in the classroom.

Teachers tell of five and six-year-olds wielding knives and head-butting and punching staff on a daily basis. The disciplinary measure for the latter was a visit to the head to “calm down”, followed by an apology. It is hardly surprising that teachers also warn that children in primary schools can be as violent as older pupils.

No one should believe that violence is prevalent among under-11s. The Prime Minister’s spokesman is half right to describe this weekend’s events as “a disturbing but singular event”.

We should not brush off “singular” examples, especially anything as barbaric as the Bulger murder. We need to be convinced that there is a system in place to deal with the small minority of violent children. Otherwise it will become a not-so-small minority.

The ultimate sanction is prosecution, conviction and sentence. Scotland is about to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12. This will be the same as it is in Canada, Greece and the Netherlands, but lower than in France, New Zealand, Germany, Italy or the Scandinavian countries.

Since 1933, the dividing line in England and Wales has been 10. There is still a piece of legislation from the 1960s, never brought into force, that would have raised this to 14. It is impossible to see how a convincing argument can be made in today’s climate for saying that no 13-year-old should be held responsible for their actions, no matter how serious the allegation.

Wherever the line is drawn, those considered too young to be culpable for their actions are thereby deemed incapable of committing a crime. If the criminal process cannot be used, then what alternatives are there?

One of the more obvious options will be intervention by social services. But statutory children’s services are targeted at avoiding harm from adults rather than dealing with potentially violent children who might harm other children. Violent youngsters may be taken into care after the event, but how well equipped is the state for recognising the risk of violence in young children and addressing it before serious harm results?

What, for example, is being done about those five and six-year-olds who wreak mayhem among their classmates? Ten minutes with the headteacher, and an apology that may be just meaningless words to such a child, hardly seem likely to solve the potential problem.

School is surely not the place to begin such basic discipline. Teachers should be required to do nothing more than reinforce the standards that have already been imposed in the home.

All of that, of course, presumes a certain way of life, both in the family and in the community, that can no longer be taken for granted.

Dealing with a five-year-old’s disruptive behaviour by the violence of the strap or the cane gives out entirely the wrong message. But there comes a time with most children when firmness is essential, no matter how well intentioned attempts may be to treat a perceived disorder.

Anyone who has had the great privilege of bringing up a child must recognise the responsibilities that go with that task.

While it might be an oversimplification to “blame the parents”, whenever a child is involved in serious violence a question must be asked about that child’s upbringing.

Courts, schools, social services and even governments have their parts to play in reinforcing basic standards. But those basics – right and wrong – must be put in place by individual families.

If each of us sets the right standard for our own children, we help to protect the potential victims around us.

Paul Firth is a retired district judge who sat in magistrates courts in Yorkshire, Merseyside and Lancashire.