Nearly one in five secondary school children in the UK have been severely abused or neglected during childhood, according to a study by NSPCC published today.
In all, 18.6 per cent of 11-17 year olds, equivalent to almost a million secondary school pupils, have been physically attacked by an adult, sexually abused, or severely neglected. One in four of the 18-24 year olds (25.3%) also reported severe maltreatment during childhood.
The findings come from a survey of 2,275 children aged 11-17 and 1,761 adults aged 18-24 carried out by the charity in 2009. The study follows an earlier NSPCC survey of the childhood experiences of 18-24 year olds in 1998-99. Together, the two studies reveal falling amounts of childhood abuse and neglect over the last 30 years, from when the respondents in the first study were born.
The new research gives a fuller and more up-to-date picture of child abuse and neglect. Andrew Flanagan, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: "Physical violence, neglect and forced sex are still harming the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, and most of it remains unreported. Successive governments have taken steps to improve child protection but local authorities are under strain providing child protection plans for only a small proportion of cases. The UK still faces a problem in tackling child abuse.
"However, these findings show progress can be made in the fight against child cruelty - many children are now treated less harshly than previous generations. We believe that heightened awareness and action has contributed to changing public attitudes and behaviours towards children for the better."
The charity says the findings raise concern that the vast majority of abused and neglected children are not getting the vital help they need - either from statutory services or informal support networks in the community. There are currently around 46,000 children of all ages on a local authority child protection plan or register.
Andrew Flanagan added: "The scale and impact of child abuse requires a major shift towards earlier intervention in child protection. When children do not get the protection and support they need when they most need it, they can be vulnerable to continuing physical or mental harm and further abuse."