Shocking rise of the pre-teen sexual predators stalking the UK's schools and attacking peers

Shocking rise of the pre-teen sexual predators stalking the UK's schools and attacking peers

As she graduated to primary school, this unwillingness escalated into kicking out and clinging to her worried parents Daniel* and Jenny*. By the time she was six, Sophie was refusing to play with her friends, and would nervously rub her gums until they bled. Her fraught parents were still at a loss as to why.

But then, in the first week of the summer holidays in 2016, when Sophie was six, the couple discovered the devastating reason behind her behaviour. For three years, Sophie had been sexually abused by a boy in her class.

While it seems unfathomable, shockingly, it’s not unique. In fact, every week at least four primary schools call upon the services of external sex education experts to deal with cases like Sophie’s. Called peer-on-peer abuse, it falls under the umbrella of harmful sexual behaviour, and can include anything from inappropriate touching to rape. Even more worryingly, cases appear to be on the increase.

Recent figures obtained by BBC’s Panorama from 30 police forces across the UK revealed that reports of children abusing other children rose 71% between 2013 and 2017, up from 4,603 to 7,866. In that time, there were 2,625 reported peer-on-peer sexual assaults on school premises, 225 of which were rapes. Meanwhile, reports of sexual offences by children aged 10 and under have more than doubled, from 204 in 2014 to 456 in 2017.

Jenny was told by another mum that a boy in Sophie’s class had been sexually touching children.

“Sophie was there at the time and her face went white,” Jenny remembers. “When we got in the car, she said that the boy, Thomas*, had been touching her.”

As Jenny gently talked to her daughter about what had happened, the full horror of the situation unfolded.

“I discovered she’d been abused at school by this child for a number of years,” Jenny recalls. “He used to ask her to pull her pants down so he could touch her vagina. We believe it started from the age of three when they were in nursery together, which was when her clingy behaviour started and she didn’t want to go.”

Under-12s don’t wake up one morning and decide they are going to go into school and sexually harm a peer, that comes from somewhere. They’ve either seen it, experienced it or witnessed it

During those three years, Sophie had complained to her mum that Thomas was bullying her. But when she spoke to the school, it insisted it was all nonsense and that Sophie and Thomas were best friends. When Jenny finally realised the extent of the abuse, she was numb with shock.

“I felt sick. I didn’t know what to say to Sophie or what to do,” Jenny says. “My husband Daniel was angry and found it hard to talk about it as he was so upset. It was an awful time and we felt completely lost, confused and angry.

It was really hard to come to terms with.”

The first thing the family did was contact the school.

“I wrote an email to the head teacher and she didn’t even reply,” says Jenny. “I then rang everyone I could think of who could help, including social services. This prompted the school to reply, and we went in for a meeting with the head teacher, but it was awful. She was so cold and made us feel like we were all lying. She told us her hands were tied and there was nothing she could do.”

Thomas was under 10 – the age of criminal responsibility – so there was no further action the family could take. Frustrated and confused, Jenny and Daniel withdrew Sophie and her brother from the school until eventually the head teacher called Jenny to inform her Thomas had been removed. The family decided to allow Sophie return, as they had been advised by the NSPCC, which they’d contacted during their ordeal, that going back would help their daughter realise she hadn’t done anything wrong.

The NSPCC, which runs specialised counselling for children who are victims of sexual abuse and their families, put the family in touch with one of their counsellors. Sophie had 25 sessions over almost a year, while Jenny and Daniel also received support.

“It helped us understand how Sophie was feeling,” explains Jenny. “And she’s doing so much better now. She has best friends and is going to parties. She’s doing everything girls her age should.

“She is still extremely scared of sharp objects like knives and sharp toys because of threats he used to make. It’s also been difficult trying to move towards a point where we didn’t feel angry with Thomas any more, because we are aware that he is a child, too.”

But why are children carrying out such brutal attacks in the first place? According to Lynette Smith, founder of BigTalk Education, a social enterprise that intervenes in schools where allegations of harmful sexual behaviour have been reported, this isn’t a new phenomenon – rather it’s finally being spoken about more. However, there is one strong factor behind the growing numbers: the increasingly easy access children have to online pornography.

“This dramatic rise in attacks is because children and young people want to replicate what they see when they watch pornography,” she explains. “With smartphones, children can access it any time, anywhere. Kids are getting mobiles younger and younger, and one of the really worrying things we see now is primary school children who seem to be addicted to porn.”

There is one strong factor behind the growing numbers: the increasingly easy access children have to online pornography

The subject of peer-on-peer abuse hit the headlines last November, when a family received a five-figure payout from the local council. It came after they’d made a legal case against the school their six-year-old daughter Bella* attended, where they claim she was sexually assaulted by another pupil.

Bella’s parents found out about her ordeal when she burst into tears one morning, as she found it so uncomfortable to sit down. Then, in heart-wrenching detail, she described how she had been repeatedly sexually assaulted in the primary school playground for six weeks between October and November 2015.


When I tried to tell my teachers, I was simply told I needed to not put myself in such a position. The next time was a few months later. I was sitting alone outside my form room reading when two boys sat by me, while another stood in front of me. One gave me a hug and started to stroke my inner thigh, slowly moving his hand higher until it was touching my private parts through my trousers. I screamed and slapped him and they all ran off laughing, while I burst into tears.

I managed to tell a teacher what had happened, but even though it was reported to the head of year and school nurse, nothing was done. The boys still touched my breasts in the corridor, or stroked my legs and grabbed my genitals in class.

It was still happening by the time I was 13, and I began to self-harm. I told my mum I was being bullied, but I was too embarrassed to tell her the whole truth. Thankfully, a few months later we moved to a new area and I never saw my abusers again. But even though the assaults had stopped and I was flourishing at school, I still suffered mentally and battled anxiety and depression into adulthood. I’ve had counselling on and off for several years, but still can’t enjoy sex because every time I try, the memories flood back, and I struggle to have relationships with men.

In my early 20s I decided to tell my family what I’d been through and they encouraged me to go to the police. However, I was told that any action against the school would have to be pursued through the civil courts as it was so long ago, which would have cost me thousands of pounds, and I didn’t have that kind of money. So I feel like I can never really move on.

I’ve had years of therapy, and it has helped me to a point. But I know I will carry the scars for the rest of my life. While I don’t blame my peers any more – they were just stupid kids picking on someone who was vulnerable – I do blame the teachers. They should have protected me and they didn’t, and I’ll never get over that.”

Once again, the attackers couldn’t be prosecuted as they were under 10, so the family launched a case against the school. They’d discovered that two members of staff had witnessed the boys displaying harmful sexual behaviour towards their daughter but did not report the incident. One staff member even found the girl with her underwear and tights partially removed with one of the boys behind her, but did not escalate the incident or tell Bella’s parents.

With this information, Bella’s parents argued that the school had been negligent by failing to protect their daughter or adequately train staff. Despite the council accepting no liability, the High Court approved a settlement deal for the family.

Talking to the BBC afterwards, Bella’s mother explained why she pursued the case.

“It matters for when she’s older,” she said. “It will hopefully help her make some sense of how she could be so seriously sexually assaulted so many times in a place where she should have been safe.”

In cases such as these, the NSPCC believes that both victim and abuser need support, which is why they created a child protection programme called Turn The Page in 2011.

“Under-12s don’t wake up one morning and decide they are going to go into school and sexually harm a peer,” explains Pat Branigan, NSPCC development manager. “That comes from somewhere. They’ve either seen it, experienced it or witnessed it. It could be down to neglect, problems at home, being in a highly sexualised environment, substance abuse or physical violence.”

Meanwhile, last September, following its own damning inquiry into sexual assault in schools in 2016 – which revealed the urgent need for action in safeguarding our children – the government brought in new statutory guidelines to help deal with allegations of peer-on-peer abuse.

As well as spotting signs of alleged assaults, schools were required to have robust procedures in place should allegations be made. They were also instructed to make relationship education compulsory in primary schools, and relationships and sex education compulsory in all secondary schools.

While these guidelines are welcomed, some experts agree there’s still more work to be done.

“Parents have told us that the decision-making by schools is not transparent,” explains Luci Coffey, advocacy manager at the charity MOSAC, a service that helps families of victims of abuse, which saw a threefold increase in calls about peer-on-peer abuse between 2013 and 2017.

“Of course this is not an easy subject to discuss or resolve, but unless more is done to engage us all in a wider conversation on the issues, nothing will change.”

Meanwhile, for the parents of victims, the long-term effects of abuse are still unknown.

“Obviously we have worries about the future effects on Sophie,” says Jenny. “But we know we can always ask the NSPCC for help. Without them I don’t believe we would have had the help Sophie needed to get this far.”

  • Names have been changed


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