The figures emerge from a major survey of involvement in crime, drug use and other problem behaviour among a representative sample of 14,000 secondary school students in England, Scotland and Wales. The authors argue that such widespread misuse of alcohol while underage cannot safely be ignored by parents or policy makers, and that it carries important implications for street violence, other offending and personal health.
The findings also suggest that violence, including weapon-carrying and fights, is an acknowledged part of life for a significant minority of young people, especially boys. Nearly one in four young men aged 15 and 16 in Year 11 (S5 in Scotland) said they had carried a knife or other weapon during the past year, while almost one in five admitted attacking someone with the intention of hurting them seriously.
The confidential questionnaire used for the national survey is also designed for use in neighbourhoods applying the Communities that Care programme, whose aims are to build safer communities and help young people achieve their potential. As well as questioning school students about offending, drug use and truancy, it asks about underlying factors in their families, schools and neighbourhoods that relate to a greater or reduced risk of antisocial behaviour.
The national survey finds that self-reported offending by young people divides into three broad categories:
Vandalism, shoplifting and other, 'less serious' property crimes, which were committed by a large minority of girls as well as boys. This type of offending 'peaked' among 14- and 15-year-olds in Year 10 (S4) where a third of students said they had committed criminal damage and a quarter reported shoplifting in the past year. Only one in ten said they had shoplifted on three or more occasions in the previous year.
Serious property crimes, such as burglary and car theft, which were considerably less common and predominantly admitted by boys. Levels of reported involvement went on increasing to Year 11 (S5), where 10 per cent of boys aged 15 and 16 said they had broken into a building to steal during the previous year, including 4 per cent who reported doing so three or more times.
Violence, including carrying a weapon, where girls reporting involvement were also heavily outnumbered by boys. Ten per cent of 11- and 12-year-old boys in Year 7 (S1) said they had carried a knife or other weapon in the past year, rising to 24 per cent of those in Year 11 (S5). Eight per cent of Year 7 boys said they had attacked someone intending serious harm, increasing to 19 per cent in Year 11. Almost four out of ten of all young people agreed it was 'alright to beat people up if they start the fight'.
More young people said they had used cannabis than any other illegal drug. Around 25 per cent of girls and 30 per cent of boys in Year 11 said they had used it at least once. Five per cent of girls and 9 per cent of boys said they had used cannabis on three or more occasions in the past month.
Reported use of more harmful, illegal drugs was relatively low, although on a rising trend with age. Around 5 per cent of boys and 4 per cent of girls in Year 11 said they had 'ever' used ecstasy, while 4 per cent of boys and 2.5 per cent of girls said the same about cocaine. The figures for heroin use were even lower at 2 per cent of boys and less than 1 per cent of girls
Reports of glue sniffing and other solvent abuse in the past month peaked among 13- and 14-year-olds in Year 9 (S3). Although frequent use was rare, the authors express concern about the potential for immediate harm among 8.5 per cent of boys and more than 10 per cent of girls in Years 9 and 10 who said they had used solvents at least once.
Alcohol and tobacco
Alcohol consumption was commonly reported, with a majority of even the youngest pupils in the survey saying they had tried at least one alcoholic drink. Nine per cent of boys and 5 per cent of 11- and 12-year-old girls in Year 7 described themselves as 'regular drinkers' rising to 39 per cent of boys and 33 per cent of girls in Year 11.
More significantly in terms of potential harm to themselves and others, 43 per cent of boys and girls in Year 10 said they had taken part in 'binge' drinking in the past month, rising to 59 per cent of boys and 54 per cent of girls in Year 11. Among them, 27 per cent of Year 11 students of either sex reported three or more 'binges'.
The widespread acceptance of alcohol - whose toxicity has been equated by medical experts with that of cocaine - was in contrast to the findings on tobacco. Most students in Years 7 and 8 said they had never smoked a cigarette - and even in Year 11, nearly half the boys and a third of girls said the same. In each year group there were more girls than boys who said they smoked.
There was a sharp increase in reported truancy with age. Some 41 per cent of girls and 38 per cent of boys in Year 11 admitted unauthorised absence from school in the previous year. Most said they had only missed occasional lessons, but 16 per cent of Year 11 boys and 18 per cent of girls said they had missed whole days or longer.
Risk and protective factors
Questions about family life suggested young people were generally well-supervised and supported by parents, who held positive expectations for their behaviour. A large majority of those interviewed agreed there were clear rules at home and that their parents would think it wrong for them to steal or use illegal drugs. However, the proportion agreeing that their parents would object to under-age drinking declined from 91 per cent in Year 7 (S1) to 56 per cent in Year 11 (S5).
Schools were judged to set and enforce clear rules on issues like lateness, absence and bullying. Three out of four young people said they usually tried their best in class, with an even bigger majority agreeing school work was very important for their future. However, enthusiasm for school and the subjects taught declined with age. A quarter of students in Year 7 (S1) said they hated school, rising to a third in Year 11 (S5).
Although most young people said they liked the neighbourhoods where they lived, a minority of around a fifth felt no attachment to their communities and reported significant levels of crime, drug dealing and other antisocial activity. A similar proportion said they felt unsafe going out after dark - girls more so than boys.
Barry Anderson, the Chief Executive of Communities that Care and co-author of the report, said the survey provided a 'snapshot' of levels of crime and drug and alcohol use among young people, but also showed the potential for programmes like CtC to prevent antisocial behaviour by tackling the underlying risk factors. 'The young people in the survey who were most heavily exposed to family, school and community risk factors, were the most likely to report being involved in crime and other problem behaviour. Conversely, young people who were strongly exposed to protective factors, such as good relationships with parents or teachers promoting positive behaviour, were less likely to report antisocial acts.'
He added: 'Although not obvious headline material, the survey points to large numbers of young people - by far the majority in most respects - leading lives where law-breaking and other antisocial behaviour are very much the exception, rather than the rule. We certainly cannot be complacent about the substantial minorities who admit at least some involvement in criminal acts. The survey findings on violence, and the neglected issue of under-age alcohol consumption are particularly worrying, given current concerns over street crime. But to brand young people in general as 'a problem' would run counter to the evidence and make it harder to respond effectively to the minority whose behaviour does cause problems.'
Youth at risk? A national survey of risk factors, protective factors and problem behaviour among young people in England, Scotland and Wales by Sarah Beinart, Barry Anderson, Stephanie Lee and David Utting is published by Communities that Care, 25 Kings Exchange, Tileyard Road, London N7 9AH (020-7837 5900) price£12.50 plus£2 p&p.
A summary of findings will be available on this website from the 9th April 2002.