Schools have been largely responsible for a “jaw-dropping” fall in crime among young people, according to police and prison experts. Key reasons include avoiding exclusions, better understanding of poor behaviour and perhaps even the freedom offered by Curriculum for Excellence.
The comments come just weeks after the death of 16-year-old Bailey Gwynne at Cults Academy in Aberdeen.
Overall, however, there has been “a remarkable drop in the number of offences being committed by youngsters in Scotland – really quite jaw-dropping”, according to Gill Robinson, professional adviser on young people for the Scottish Prison Service.
She highlighted a huge reduction in referrals to the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration, which fell by 84 per cent between 2005-06 and 2013-14 (see figures, right). There were 45 per cent fewer offences among young people overall, compared with a 4 per cent drop among adults. And, last week, there were 477 men aged 16-21 in the national young offenders’ institution in Polmont, compared with nearly 800 four years ago.
Speaking at the annual conference of education directors’ body ADES, Dr Robinson said: “One of the most significant factors in all this is the way that our schools are operating and maintaining those youngsters as valued members of the community.”
Schools now had a better understanding of “deep-seated problems” behind bad behaviour, Dr Robinson added. There were “very high levels of bereavement” among Polmont inmates, she said: two-thirds in a survey had suffered four or more, and three-quarters of these were the result of traumatic circumstances such as suicide, murder or overdose.
Dr Robinson, who previously worked for Education Scotland, speculated that CfE might also play an important role, as it gave teachers “more scope to be inventive and creative” and tailor learning to individual needs.
Meanwhile, education behind prison bars has also been improved in an attempt to build skills and self-belief among inmates. At Barlinnie Prison, for example, an area formerly used to pack breakfasts for adult prisoners has been made into a performing arts space.
Most Polmont inmates did not now return after release, Dr Robinson said, and many went on to “transform their lives”.
‘You can make a difference’
Recorded crime overall in Scotland fell this year for the eighth year in a row, and is now at its lowest level for 41 years. Much of the drop has been attributed to the preventative approach of police, including the Violence Reduction Unit.
Karyn McCluskey, the unit’s director, told the conference she thought teachers had also contributed by dealing sensitively with children who were facing issues such as drug addiction, neglect and mental illness.
She said: “Sometimes you’re the only thing that these children have, and I know you can make a difference, because some [young people] said, ‘The only person that cared about me was someone in the school’.”
School exclusions in Scotland have dropped sharply: the most recent figure of 21,955 in 2012-13 is down from 44,794 in 2006-07. Permanent exclusions are now almost unheard of – although some 90 per cent of Polmont inmates surveyed had been excluded.
“One more kid you keep in school is one less kid I’ll have in jail,” said Ms McCluskey, whose organisation started within the former Strathclyde Police in 2005 but was later extended across Scotland.
School campus police officers were part of the success story, as they were often sensitive to reasons for poor behaviour, she added. One officer became concerned about a girl who wanted to be in school as it was safer than staying with her alcoholic family, but who had been removed from class for refusing to remove a non-uniform top. The officer discovered she had no clothing to wear underneath and bought her some shirts.
West Dunbartonshire education director Terry Lanagan, who also spoke at the event, visited Polmont and found that educators could learn “a huge amount” from how it prepared inmates for the outside world.