"Fire-setter" courses for young people who show an abnormal fascination with fires are to be stepped up in two areas of Scotland, as new figures show that pupils are costing local authorities millions by deliberately setting their schools on fire.
According to statistics obtained under Freedom of Information from the Westminster Department of Communities and Local Government, the number of Scottish schools set on fire increased by 20 per cent between 1998 and 2007, one third of them during the school day; the number known to have been started deliberately fluctuated between 48 and 81 per cent. Under-18s were mainly involved.
Strathclyde, the second-largest fire and rescue service in the UK, is to expand its fire-setter courses, with four trained advisers in each of its 10 areas. They are part of a restorative justice programme where fire fighters get young people to face up to the consequences of their actions.
Children as young as three have been referred for displaying a morbid fascination with fire. Older ones setting fire to refuse bins and other objects have also been referred.
Alistair MacIntosh, senior youth officer with the brigade, said: "The days of taking them down to the fire station and giving them a row are long gone. There is much more educational input now. We make it clear what the consequences of their actions are. They are made to realise that if one engine is called out to deal with the bin fire, that's one less to deal with other fires."
The Central Region fire service is also providing individual tuition for up to 60 youngsters aged five to 16 referred by police, social and education services for "demonstrating fire-setting behaviour". Kenny Rogers, its group manager in community safety, commented: "Our aim is to get the children to realise the consequences of their behaviour, and that it is totally unacceptable."
Trained volunteers go into the children's homes and talk with parents, as well as bringing them into the station for demonstrations on fire safety. "It does come as a short, sharp, shock to them," Mr Rogers said. "We don't get re-referrals".
Recent incidents which have landed local authorities with hefty bills include two primaries in Aberdeenshire, where the council had to shell out nearly Pounds 7 million to replace them following wilful or reckless fire- raising, and partial damage to Kilsyth Academy which North Lanarkshire estimates will cost Pounds 350,000 to repair; Strathclyde Police is treating this case as wilful fire-raising, and two youths have been referred to the Children's Reporter in connection with it.
International studies have shown that 43 per cent of juvenile fire-raisers display extreme anti-social behaviour, compared with only 3 per cent of non-fire-raisers. Serious drug misuse has been found in 57 per cent of fire-setters, compared to 8 per cent in non-fire-raisers.
Leading psychologists have pointed to abnormalities in young people which turn them into arsonists. Tommy McKay, the Dunbartonshire-based educational psychologist, said: "An increase in wilful fire-raising by young people may well be part of something much bigger. For example, the number of youngsters admitted to hospital for mental illness and the number self-harming have risen exponentially over recent years. Increasing numbers are also being treated for alcohol-related illnesses. The problem may be worse in Scotland because of the higher levels of deprivation. There could also be a copycat factor. Young people take the lead from others, following their maladaptive behaviour."
Ian Stephen, the clinical forensic psychologist who was an adviser on the BBC Cracker series, said: "Children are fascinated by fire at a very young age. It is like a game to them. Later on, among a small minority, it can become a way of expressing anger and becoming destructive.
"Schools can be a place where some kids get no satisfaction and can positively hate. Fire-raising is a warning sign: the same children can be cruel to animals and can go on to become serious offenders."
Mr Stephen suggested that the problem could be worse in Scotland "because the Scottish personality is more introverted and more likely to project anger onto something rather than somebody. They are not good at appropriate anger expression. If there is an issue with a teacher, they will attack the school building."
Graham Page, public sector risk manager with insurers Zurich Municipal, which paid out nearly Pounds 2 million in claims from Scottish authorities last year, blamed school discipline.
But Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, denied this. "It is not about a breakdown of discipline in schools. It's about a breakdown throughout society. It doesn't concern all pupils - only a few who have severe difficulties both in and out of school."
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Community safety partnerships provide a forum for authorities, police, fire services and others to develop local initiatives and programmes in relation to the investigation and prevention of non-accidental fires."
Cause for alarm
Other figures, obtained under an FoI to all UK police forces by the Scottish Conservatives, revealed there were 1.7 incidents of fire-raising in Scottish schools every day in 2007 and 2008 - a total of 1,241 cases, and more than in England. But these figures were accompanied by several health warnings: there was no information from seven police forces in England and the Scottish statistics included false alarms, fires near schools and fires at colleges and universities. This led the Government to accuse the Tories of "fiddling the figures to provide misleading results, which is a disgraceful attack on Scotland's young people".