HATE crimes committed by children and young people in Cheshire’s schools and colleges have increased almost seven-fold in the past five years.

The Standard has seen police statistics that reveal the figure soared from just six offences in 2014 to 40 last year.

Most offences relate to race, but some youngsters have also been targeted on account of their faith, disability or sexual orientation.

There is also a noticeable spike after 2016 – the year of the hugely divisive Brexit referendum and the election of right-wing US President Donald Trump.

The chief executive of anti-bullying charity Kidscape told this newspaper that anti-immigration rhetoric globally had “given rise to attitudes of hate, fearmongering and intolerance”.

And she warned that children could very well be mimicking the language and behaviour of their parents and other adults in the school environment.

Her stance was echoed last week by Chester MP Chris Matheson who blamed a sharp rise in Islamophobic hate crimes in the county after 2016 on racist language used by the Leave campaign.

However, the Brexit Party’s parliamentary candidate for Ellesmere Port, Chris Stevens, told this newspaper Leave was not to blame.

He condemned “weaponising” statistics for political gain and stressed the “majority of Brits” had voted to leave the European Union.

“The millions of voters who back Brexit and our party are no more responsible for the minority of deplorable people committing hate crimes than anyone else,” he said.

The figures, released by Cheshire Police under the Freedom of Information Act, show hate crimes in schools and colleges rose from six in 2014 to 11 in 2015.

There were then 24 such offences recorded in 2016, soaring to 39 in 2017 and then 40 in 2018.

By April this year – the last month for which figures are available – the number was already at 27. [Full statistics can be found at the end of this article].

Lauren Seager-Smith, CEO at national charity Kidscape, said the upwards trend in hate crimes matched what she and her staff were seeing in their day-to-day work with children and families impacted by bullying.

She also said the children’s charity Childline had seen a rise in calls relating to racist bullying in recent years.

She warned: “Children and young people are always watching and listening to adults in their lives and if they see or hear adults being intolerant towards others who are perceived as 'different' they will behave in the same way.

“They are growing up in an increasingly hostile world. It is our responsibility to teach our children kindness and respect - irrespective of background or belief. What you say as a parent or adult about other people matters.”

Asked about the impact of Brexit and Trump, she added: “Political rhetoric in the US and UK that condemns immigrants and treats people as outsiders has given rise to attitudes of hate, fear-mongering and intolerance.

“This isn't the country we know and love and our children deserve better.”

But Chris Stevens, Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for The Brexit Party in Ellesmere Port and Neston, stressed he and his party “are committed to equality, diversity, social harmony, and respecting an individual's right to choose what they believe”.

He said: “We, of course, condemn all hate crimes and find it extremely regrettable that there is some evidence hate crimes are rising.

“The reporting of hate crimes is also becoming easier as authorities take such incidents more seriously. This is a good thing. The fact fewer victims are staying silent should be welcomed.

“However, to weaponise these statistics to score political points and attack a mainstream political position is misleading and not helpful. A majority of Brits have supported Brexit at the polls and we won a recent national election.”

Mr Stevens added: “I am proud to be a member of a political party made up of all ethnicities, ages, and genders and as a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, I am committed to tackling all forms of crime and discrimination.”

Cheshire Police chiefs would not be drawn on what they believe is behind the rise in hate crimes in schools and colleges, or the increase in Islamophobic crimes in general.

Chief Inspector Louise Cherrington said: “While we continue to educate to prevent incidents arising, we have also done a lot as a force over the years to provide ways for people to report hate crime as we understand it is imperative that victims have the confidence to speak out if they have been subjected to a hate crime, including giving access to a wide range of voluntary organisations and service user groups who provide a third party reporting service for victims and witnesses. We also have trained staff who we can arrange for you to speak to if it would make you feel more comfortable.

“These services offer a safe and comfortable environment and can assist people with reporting a hate crime. They will help you fill in an easy to fill in form on the True Vision website and the police will then use that report to investigate the hate crime thoroughly and make sure the perpetrator is made to face the consequences of their actions.”

* Families and children affected by bullying can seek help from a number of charities and organisations, including Kidscape at www.kidscape.org.uk

Full statistics for hate crimes recorded in Cheshire schools and colleges:

2014 - 6 offences recorded. (4 relating to race and 2 to sexual orientation)

2015 - 11 (10 race and 1 sexual orientation)

2016 - 24 (16 race, 2 faith, 3 disability, 3 sexual orientation)

2017 - 39 (29 race, 2 faith, 2 disability, 6 sexual orientation)

2018 - 40 (28 race, 2 faith, 5 disability, 5 sexual orientation)

2019 - 27 by April