No one knows how many child prostitutes there are in this country, but the known facts are shocking enough. Between 1989 and 1995, around 4,000 children were cautioned or convicted of soliciting: one girl was just 10 years old. These figures are just the tip of the iceberg.
The Children's Society, which this week held a conference on child prostitution to launch a book on the subject, wants to change the perception of such youngsters in order to tackle the problem.
Penny Dean, who runs one of the society's "safe houses" where children at risk can stay for short periods, said: "We know that these children have fallen through every safety net there is. Many have been abused or neglected as young children, and experience disrupted and unsettled lives which leave them vulnerable to adults who target them for abuse. If there is one common denominator, it is that these children and young people simply do not feel anybody cares about them. As a result, they don't feel that they matter.
"All those who wish to tackle this issue need to do so with an understanding that these children and young people are the victims of abuse and exploitation and are not the offenders."
Many young prostitutes go on the streets because they have run away from an abusive home life and cannot get benefits. Once there, they tend to be treated as criminals and may find themselves being fined by courts - a fine which can only be paid by going back on the streets.
David Bowen, Dorset's principal education welfare officer, the author of one chapter of the Children's Society book, believes teachers are unwilling to believe that their pupils might be prostitutes, in the same way that the extent of child abuse was greeted with disbelief a decade ago.
"While we are still very uncertain about the frequency of child prostitution, experience with every other form of child abuse suggests it is more common than we believe. Discussion within education circles, such as may be prompted by this book, will help reveal the true size of the problem," he wrote.
He continued: "It cannot, therefore, be ignored if it is known or believed that a pupil is engaged in child prostitution. To do so would be a dereliction of duty by the parent and consequently by any other adult with responsibility for the child."
Mr Bowen believes that child prostitution remains on the fringes of child protection and therefore has a very low profile with the children viewed as criminals. They are therefore denied help and support from the most helpful sources, which include education.
Instead, schools should extend their child abuse policies to include prostitution, encouraging pupils' confidences. They should also work closely with social workers through the local child protection committee. "It is through the normalising influence of education that the child victims can both retain and find security and respect."
Mr Bowen advises that teachers should be aware of their pupils' social lives, which may be cause for concern if they are focused on older people or there is an unexpected amount of money available. "Unexpected knowledge of sexual matters, and an overmature attitude towards them, are also reason to be concerned."
Earlier abuse or poverty might also drive a child into prostitution, he writes. Schools should train staff to pick up on early signs of trouble with a pupil.
Contrary to current government policy, Mr Bowen believes that the science curriculum should contain information about HIV. Sex education should be part of a full personal, social and health education strategy, lessons which allow pupils to speak in a guarded way and could teach self-respect, assertiveness and mutual respect. "These three topics seem crucial to an effective preventative programme when considering child prostitution," he writes.
The book recommends: * using children as prostitutes should be redefined as child abuse and the criminal law should not be used against child prostitutes; * education departments should be more proactive in sex and health education and recognise more fully their role in child protection; * all new government initiatives should be co-ordinated by the Department of Health; * benefits should be targeted to prevent young people becoming prostitutes for economic reasons; * urgent consideration of the establishment of a network of safe houses; * local authorities' obligations to care-leavers should be more rigorously implemented.
Child Prostitution in Britain (The Children's Society, Pounds 12.95)