Campaign targets 500 panellists
The annual campaign to recruit panel members, launched last week, aims to select 500 throughout Scotland.
The campaign was kicked off with the help of players from Gretna Football Club, along with Robert Brown, the Deputy Education Minister. As well as its growing prowess on the park, the club has built a reputation for itself off it by working with disadvantaged youngsters in football schools. Its mascot is on temporary loan to publicise the local recruitment campaign in Dumfries and Galloway.
Referrals of troubled and troublesome youngsters to children's panel reporters have been soaring, putting some well-publicised strains on the hearings system. They reached a record 50,529 last year, of whom 17,494 children were in need of care and protection.
Mr Brown stressed panel members did not need any special qualifications, "just an ability to listen and a desire to help."
Teachers who have served on panels stress that the benefit is not a one-way street. Helen Thorley, a teacher in Moray, is one of those keen to offer "a compassionate ear." As a teacher, she even believes in the importance of challenging professionals.
Ms Thorley, a local panel member since 2002, became interested in the work after she appeared at a hearing for a pupil who was being reintegrated into mainstream after being in a behavioural unit.
She says she felt privileged to have a young person put their trust in her and to help make decisions for a child. "It's a daunting task sometimes, making a decision, because it does have a huge impact that will stay with that child for life," Ms Thorley says.
Among the benefits of serving on the panel are meeting like-minded people who want to put something back into the community, she says.
New skills she has learnt include listening more carefully and "taking time to listen to how things are said and not always what is said." It was also important not to take the first option as the only option.
Scott Hardie from Inverness is a primary school teacher who decided to join the panel in 2005. "I wanted to get involved in something that I felt was worthwhile," he says. He, too, stresses that panel membership is "quite a responsibility."
He adds: "The main benefit for me is the feeling of making a contribution to society as a whole, and the hope that your decision may help to have a positive impact on the lives of the children we meet.
"Being a panel member can be an eye-opening experience as you gain an understanding of how vulnerable some children are."
For some teachers, panel membership has brought direct job benefits. Una Fraser, a primary teacher from Caithness, says that, since joining the panel, she has applied for and had a promotion.
"Being panel trained gave me the confidence to do this", she says. "I was encouraged by the positive feedback given by my panel training facilitators."
Ms Fraser has found the benefits of working on the panel include getting an insight into the difficulties young people face. She says she has also enhanced some of her own skills, such as keeping to the point, effective listening and effective ways of getting the point across.
Marianne Hutchison, a primary teacher who serves on the Highland children's panel, has also become a learner. "I hope I am now more perceptive, open-minded and less likely to make judgments quickly," she says.
Her panel experience has in many ways been an enhancement of the training she had in becoming a primary teacher, she believes.