Off the streets

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Late-night curfews for children being piloted in South Lanarkshire have been widely criticised. But what do heads have to say about them? Seonag MacKinnon finds out.

At nine o'clock on a Saturday night two weeks ago, a four-year-old boy was picked up by police on the streets of Hamilton, cold and alone. The previous Saturday a six-year-old girl was one of 13 children rounded up and returned to their parents in the first of Scotland's street curfews.

Bob Murdoch of Earnock High School in Hamilton is the only headteacher in the area prepared to speak out about the late-night curfews for children which are being imposed on South Lanarkshire's streets. A passionate but moderate man, he says quietly and repeatedly that he believes this scheme is a good thing. "Curfew suggests what happens in Beirut, but it is not remotely like that. This is not about children simply being out, but about children being out and at risk to themselves - and of being drawn into crime. Police officers use their judgment, and if they think it right, they take them home."

It is easy to see why the national media latched on to the term "curfew" and why supporters of the scheme disapprove of it. The project's more accurate description, "Children and Young People Safety Pilot Scheme", which is part of Strathclyde's Spotlight crime initiative in conjunction with South Lanarkshire Council, is unwieldy and has much less impact. If the term curfew had not been used, council officials and police officers would probably have been spared the glaring spotlight on their work and the countless questions about civil liberties.

But curfews are likely to spread throughout Scotland and have an impact on many schools. And Bob Murdoch's public support for what the police and council are doing is of immense value to them in winning public approval. Silence can be interpreted as disapproval rather than just unwillingness to speak to the press.

Murdoch is happy to put the case for the scheme to the public at large and school communities in particular. He has no need to put it to his own community. The three pilot areas known as Whitehill, Fairhill and Hillhouse are also known locally as The Jungle and Wine Alley.

A glance at statistics confirms the disadvantage these nicknames suggest: 90 per cent of houses in Whitehill and 80 per cent in Hillhouse are council property, compared to the South Lanarkshire average of 36 per cent; 70 per cent of homes in Whitehill are without a car compared to 41 per cent in South Lanarkshire; over 15 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds in Hillhouse are unemployed, almost double the average rate across Scotland. When I stopped for directions at the local petrol station, the manager warned me: "You don't want to go up there. I know - we have to deal with those kids at lunchtimes. "

The council and police say it was the local community which asked them to clamp down on young people on the streets at night, and feedback seems to confirm that local people are behind the scheme. A survey published by the Hamilton Advertiser indicated that 95 per cent of almost 1,000 locals polled were in favour of the community police patrols. In an ITV teletext telephone poll for central Scotland, 96 per cent of almost 2,000 callers wanted the initiative extended to the rest of Scotland.

Strathclyde Chief Constable John Orr knows that he has a tougher job in winning over the liberal-minded residents of Glasgow's West End. "It's certainly no crime for youngsters to stand in the street chatting to their friends," he says. "My officers will not harass law-abiding young people who are not committing or have no intention of committing crime or public nuisance. "

Bob Murdoch concedes that "it is probably right to say this is an infringement of civil rights, but we don't have the luxury of sitting in academic isolation, making pronouncements about civil liberties. We live in the real world and have to translate academic things into common sense."

He argues that a greater disservice would be done to children if the police were to turn a blind eye, since the danger to the children and the increased likelihood of them drifting into crime are great. Introducing greater control into the lives of some young people would, he says, also help instil the right attitude towards school during the day and ultimately lead to better qualifications. "It would be difficult to prove this, but I am convinced it is the case."

Many young people have too much freedom granted to them too early, Murdoch believes. It is illogical, on the one hand, to call them children and say they are unaccountable for their actions, and on the other, to give them adult liberties. Interventionism on the part of the police will, he thinks, take back some of this freedom.

A right-wing columnist on the Daily Mail recently described youths on the street after dark as "packs of wild dogs" bringing themselves up. Murdoch disagrees: "It is almost unknown to meet a parent who doesn't care. More commonly a parent is unable to exert control, because for a long time that child has had a lot of freedom, a life beyond home."

Another frequent myth is that youths roaming the streets are all from the poorest families. "They are not all waifs and strays," insists Murdoch. "Some of the kids are well turned out and well fed."

Parents are often unclear about how much independence to give their children - setting a deadline for going to bed or coming home seems repressive and archaic to many parents. Murdoch accepts that some children do manage to cope with greater liberty and late nights, but parents are still running risks.

His views are supported by Ian Valentine, president of the Glasgow branch of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, and head of a Glasgow West End school, Cleveden Secondary. He believes that most heads back the Spotlight initiative, partly because of their trust in the local police. "Particularly in Maryhill they have managed to forge a good relationship with the community. It is markedly different from the English inner cities. There is a greater willingness of the police here to remember where they came from.

"The support that most headteachers give to this scheme is genuine, but it is not unqualified."

Glasgow head Maire Whitehead, who is vice-president of the Association of Headteachers in Scotland, backs the scheme wholeheartedly. As headteacher of St Minn's Primary, Kings Park, she sees many younger children having problems coping with late nights and lack of sleep. She believes that parents' unwillingness to confront the reality of their children's behaviour in and out of school is at the root of increasing discipline problems in school. The phrase she says her colleagues at St Minn's often hear from parents, which encapsulates this denial of their children's behaviour, is: "My child is not an angel, but one thing he would not do is tell me a lie."

Maire Whitehead welcomes the curfew because it will force parents to face the reality of their children's lifestyle and help curb tiredness and drunkenness among children. All these factors, she says, have an impact on a child's behaviour in school. "The parents are too tired themselves and just want a bit of peace, so they aren't going to ask too many questions," she says. "It is neglect rather than cruelty. They are not giving their children their time. They are only too willing to believe where their children say they're going, because it suits the image they want to have of them."

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