Features: November 23rd, 2007

By Christine Whatford

Public concern and moral indignation about juvenile crime and disorderly behaviour has led to the demonization of some children. The author shows that this is a handy way of shifting blame for things we see around us that we don’t like, when the root of demonization is social unrest caused by poverty. She explores the way that education is closing the depravation social gap.

Most parents love their children and want them to grow up into independent, happy, caring, healthy well-balanced adults. Why, then, that we are using words like ‘demonization’ in relation to children? The word ‘demon’ has an inevitability about it, implying forces beyond anyone’s control either to prevent or to change. Do we really mean there are groups of children who have achieved such a state of wickedness that they should be blamed and punished rather than loved and cherished?

A study of the academic literature of the past 40 years shows that there may be a more deep-rooted ambivalence towards children within us as individuals than we realize, which has developed in such a way as to become ‘institutionalized’. Barry Goldson says that adults both want to protect children, seeing them as potential victims, and to control them, seeing them as potential threats, which is a cause of anxiety in adults. When you link that to an emergence in recent years of a view that children and young people are ‘in some ways turning feral’ and that ‘our society does not like young people’, it is but a short step to believing that there is a crisis in contemporary childhood and that ‘firm action’ needs to be taken to stamp it out.

Normal intergenerational tension?

But away from academia, and back to ‘ordinary parents’, how much of this is simply the normal intergenerational tension that has always existed? Adolescent rebellion and challenge is normal, both individually within families and in the peer group. Remember Mods and Rockers? At the time, the peer group manifestation is often thought by that particular older generation to be worse than anything that had happened before. It is usually different in nature from what went before it. There weren’t Lambrettas and Vespas until the 1950s and now there are drugs not widely available in the 1960s and means of distance bullying using phone texts and email not possible in the 1980s and 1990s.

Crossing the line

But it isn’t exasperation of this generation with the next that is the real issue with demonization. The word has a nastier meaning to it than the more old-fashioned phrase ‘The trouble with the youth of today is…’.The path to demonization of particular groups of children and young people has to a considerable extent been through their criminalization. By the early 1990s,public concern, disquiet and moral indignation about juvenile crime and disorderly behaviour was widespread and linked to more general anxieties and concerns about what was happening in society as a whole.

The murder of James Bulger by two 10-year-old boys in February1993, and the use of the words ‘cunning’, ‘wicked’, ‘ evil’ and ‘barbarity’ by the judge in the case marked a watershed. We had crossed that line from general public concern to almost literal demonization of individuals. As recently as 31 March this year the Guardian headed an article on prison overcrowding ‘Bulger, Blunkett and the making of a “prison fetish”: changing public attitudes following murder of toddler have contributed to doubling of number behind bars in 15 years’.

Demonization of any group is a handy way of shifting blame for things we see around us that we don’t like away from ourselves, i.e. away from society as a whole. The word implies that one shouldn’t necessarily look for logical, earthly, normal causes, so the behaviour of the children becomes the problem to be solved, preferably by some version of ‘toughness’, rather than looking at what causes the behaviour.

The demons

So who are Martin Narey’s ‘demonized minority’? One of the groups with whom he now works as the chief executive of Barnardo’s is looked after children. Other groups include ethnic minority groups, particularly Afro-Caribbean boys, those with mental health problems and young people who have not succeeded within the education system, which increasingly includes white working-class boys. Another way of saying the same thing is that there are a disproportionately high number of black people, people who cannot read, people with mental health problems and people who were in care, in the prison population. And the one thing that links the vast majority of them all is poverty and deprivation.

Martin Narey argued correctly that central government should be speaking and acting in defence of these children. It has a laudable policy to eradicate child poverty by 2020 but most recent figures show that it has slipped backwards and will need to make a huge effort to meet its own deadline.

If the root of demonization is social unrest caused by poverty, closing the social gap through education is the way to address it, as the secretary of state for education, Alan Johnson, has said on number of occasions. The key policy initiatives aimed at achieving this include:

•This government has picked up and run with the previous government’s policy of ‘choice and diversity’, going for specialist schools, foundation schools, increasing the number of church schools and latterly setting up trust schools and academies. This has not been without controversy and the issue of whether schools are choosing children and families, as opposed to parents choosing schools remains a very real one.
•Raising standards overall in schools.
•Raising the school leaving age to 18 with apprenticeships or work-based training for those not in school.
•The introduction of 14 new vocational diplomas by 2013 with the aim that there will by then be an entitlement curriculum for all young people.
•‘Personalized learning’: making sure that each child’s education is tailored to their individual needs.
•The amalgamation of education departments with children’s social services departments to create the new children’s services departments as recommended by Lord Laming in his report on the death of Victoria Climbié.
•Sure Start, early years and extended school provision to enable parents to stay in or go back into the job market and increase their earning power.

So to what extent is education closing the social gap and what impact is it having in preventing demonization of whole groups of young people? The last statistical bulletin issued by the DCSF in 2006 showed that there has been quite considerable progress in narrowing the attainment gap between schools with high and low numbers of ‘deprived’ (i.e. receiving free school meals) pupils. However, while schools are now doing better at getting more pupils to a certain threshold, the more affluent pupils are getting the really high marks.

In the future, the DCSF may well move the focus to relative progress as a way to address the class gap. In so far as more deprived pupils are disproportionately represented among the lower attainers this would be a way to incentivize schools to focus on achieving faster and more consistent progress for those pupils.


It is social and economic disadvantage, and a lack of hope and opportunity ever to escape from it, that results in the creation of an underclass. This, in turn, is associated with (and blamed for) high levels of anti-social behaviour and crime, which then becomes attributed to particular groups or kinds of young people resulting in the stereotyping and demonizing of those groups. Insofar as they are relying on social mobility through education to be the solution to these issues, the government can show that the underlying trends for more deprived pupils who may have been demonized in the past are improving.

However, here are four reasons why we should be cautious and should remind ourselves that there is still a long way to go in the ‘demonization’ debate

•The PISA, and other studies, consistently show that the UK still has one of the highest gaps among OECD countries between the lowest and the highest attaining
.•The recent report from UNICEF on childhood well-being in industrialized countries ranked the UK bottom.
•If we believe in really giving equality of opportunity to all those young people in the most disadvantaged and ‘demonized’ groups, this must include access to higher education which has become less likely since the introduction of student loans and university tuition fees.
•Perceptions of the general public tend to lag behind reality, so even when the statistics show a real improvement in performance of those groups, that on its own will not alter the person in the street’s view of them, so will not per se, end their demonization.

â– Reference Goldson, B. (2000), The demonization of children: from the symbolic to the institutional. In Foley, P. et al. (Eds),Children in Society (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke).

Christine Whatford CBE is an education consultant and past president of the Society of Education Officers

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm