Fifth rise for referrals

Neil Munro

One in 20 children is now referred to the children's reporter, the latest figures show, mostly because they are thought to be at risk.

But the average figure of 4.7 per cent of Scotland's children hits a high of 8.9 per cent in Clackmannanshire, the annual report for 2004-05 from the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration states, and drops as low as 1.8 per cent in Angus.

The total number of children referred to the reporter has risen for the fifth consecutive year and now stands at a record 50,529, up 10 per cent on the previous year.

The implications for schools are clear. The age breakdown for last year shows referrals began to rise significantly for 11-year-olds and continued to rise until they peaked at just under 9,000 referrals among 15-year-olds.

Only 3,000 of the 50,000 cases were referred for not attending school.

The figures were accompanied by a warning from Margaret Cox, principal reporter, that "the circumstances of Scotland's most vulnerable children and young people are not improving fast enough".

Douglas Bulloch, the SCRA's chairman, said: "Today's report adds further weight to the concerns expressed by many professionals that we are seeing a widening opportunity gap and that many of our most vulnerable children and young people are losing out."

The comments reflect the trend, again confirmed by the figures, that the most pressing problem facing the juvenile system is that posed by children at risk rather than those who commit offences. There was a 12 per cent rise in "non-offence" referrals compared to a 6 per cent rise in the number of young people referred because they had committed an offence.

Over the past 10 years, the same pattern is clear - a 155 per cent increase in the number of children referred on non-offence grounds against a 20 per cent rise for committing offences.

Despite the repeated appearance of antisocial behaviour in the headlines, fewer than 3 per cent of cases involve persistent offenders - although they make up 30 per cent of all the offence referrals.

The figures suggest that the Scottish Executive will struggle to meet its youth justice target of a 10 per cent drop in the number of persistent young offenders by 2006. In the past year, the figure actually went up by 5 per cent.

Mr Bulloch said: "Many children today face social issues and challenges that put them at a severe disadvantage in life. We know from what our partners tell us and what our studies reveal that the children who come to our attention are often exposed to poverty, disrupted family lives and widespread alcohol and drug abuse.

"Tackling these underlying causes requires a multi-agency response, and for that response to be sustained over many years."

The role played by deprivation is clear from the fact that five authorities accounted for 40 per cent of referrals - Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife, North Lanarkshire and South Lanarkshire.

Variations across the country reflect the pattern. East Ayrshire has seen the highest increase during the year in the number of referrals for offences and non-offences - 30 per cent and 76 per cent. But the numbers fell in 10 local authorities.

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Neil Munro

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