Assessing How Well Systems Work: The Example of Scottish Children’s Hearings


Assessing How Well Systems Work: The Example of Scottish Children’s Hearings

Sally Kuenssberg


In their book on juvenile justice in Scotland published in 1998, Lockyer and Stone (1998) commented that the changes introduced in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 had ‘a dual potential which will allow the core principles and institutions of the children’s hearings system to be either maintained and strengthened or undermined’. Its future, they predicted, would depend ‘on what support there continues to be from politicians and the public for the welfare approach to children in trouble’. One important consideration in harnessing support involves evidence about how well the system is working.

The context

Despite demographic, political, economic, social and legislative changes over the last 30 years, affecting all aspects of Scottish life, the fundamental principles and operation of the Hearings System have remained remarkably unchanged since its inception in 1971. However, following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, it has like many other institutions been under scrutiny, with major reviews of juvenile offending (Scottish Executive 2000) and child protection (Scottish Executive 2002) and, in 2004, the first phase of a wide-ranging review by the Scottish Executive of the Hearings System itself (Scottish Executive 2004b).

Debates about juvenile justice and welfare have been played out in increasingly strident newspaper headlines, deploring in tones of equal outrage the failure both to punish and to protect children and young people. However paradoxical such newspaper comments appear, the cumulative effect is inevitably to undermine public confidence in the Hearings System, which deals with the children subject to these comments. Add to that a political drift towards a more punitive approach to offending, and there is no doubt that the fundamental principles of the system, including its integrated approach to child protection and youth crime, are under serious challenge.

It must be acknowledged that the Hearings System was slow to recognise the changing political culture that now requires all UK public agencies to be rigorously accountable for the efficiency and effectiveness of the services they provide. There is a general expectation that the activities of all public agencies should be subject to audit and evaluation, often as a condition of ongoing funding. A trend towards central regulation dictates that their performance and service quality are measured against an ever increasing number of standards and targets, which in turn become yardsticks of political success. National standards are being introduced for many areas of activity that affect children’s lives, including youth justice, child protection, education, and care services.

This chapter is written from the point of view of an ‘insider’ with long experience of the Hearings System, but its message was prompted by a stark realisation that if these challenges are to be confronted, there are some hard questions to answer. The most fundamental – and the most difficult – is a perennial and legitimate question that has never been satisfactorily addressed: ‘Does the Hearings System work?’

At one time, vague assertions about the distinctive ‘Scottishness’ of the Hearings System and the benevolent motivation of its welfare ethos might have been sufficient to justify it as ‘a good thing’. But over the last decade such uncritical self-satisfaction has been rendered increasingly unacceptable in the face of a series of high-profile child protection inquiries (Scottish Executive 2002), severe pressure on front-line services in some parts of the country, and rising political and public unease about the ability of the current system to address offending.

Much has been written about the difficulties of evaluating public services. Newman (2003) has argued that the ‘audit explosion’ that took place during the 1980s and early 1990s in an attempt to assess the performance of public and welfare services often undermined confidence rather than the reverse, and ‘the increase in regulation, inspection and audit can be viewed as filling the resulting trust vacuum’. Since 1997 the Labour government has continued this trend by extending the regulatory role of government. Whether we like it or not, standards, targets and ‘key performance indicators’ are the currency of the time and in answering the question ‘Does the Hearings System work?’ a vague commitment to children’s welfare is no longer enough.

This chapter argues that in order to respond to such challenges, the Hearings System must be prepared to adopt means of demonstrating its effectiveness that are more in keeping with prevailing practice. It identifies a number of problems in assessing the effectiveness of such a complex system and then moves on to suggest some possible criteria by which this might reasonably be judged.

Barriers to assessment of the Hearings System’s effectiveness

So what evidence do we need in order to judge the Hearings System’s effectiveness? It is reasonable to assume that a meaningful assessment would be based, at the minimum, on accurate and timely data, an accumulated body of research, and clear aims and standards against which to measure its achievements. However, deficiencies in each of these categories have up to now created barriers to a comprehensive assessment of the system.

Lack of data

First, there has been a lack of up-to-date integrated information systems to collect comprehensive and speedily available data on which to base analysis. The complexity of the process, with multiple agencies involved at different stages, has made it difficult to collate even the existing data into a coherent picture.

In terms of available data, however, there has been a major step forward since the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) took over national responsibility for producing and publishing annual statistics about the Hearings System. Its electronic case management system should now make it possible to access records, track cases, manage data, analyse referral patterns and identify trends, giving greater potential than ever before to assess and demonstrate what is really happening. An example is the report by Bradshaw (2005) on young people who persistently offend. Also, there is now widespread acceptance of the need to share the mass of information collected separately by all the different agencies involved in the system, including the police, the SCRA, Crown Office and the Scottish Courts Service, Local Authorities, the National Health Service and the voluntary sector.

An increase in easily accessible data does not, however, come without its own risks – of simply drowning in numbers and not seeing the wood for the trees; of drawing oversimplified conclusions about very complex processes; of confusing short- and long-term time perspectives; of drawing unjustified general conclusions from individual cases; of using statistics selectively to support partisan conclusions; of failing to recognise that figures may reflect demographic, societal or policy changes rather than illustrating the results of intervention by the Hearings System. In addition, despite recent advances in information technology, data protection issues and professional sensitivities still inhibit the sharing of information. There are further risks that pressure on organisations to comply with targets as the benchmarks of their success may actually distort practice. Publishing statistics about complex services will almost inevitably run the risk of misinterpretation by individuals who lack the necessary understanding for informed analysis or may distort the figures to support a biased point of view.

Dearth of research

In addition to the collection of data recording activity, there is obviously a place for the depth and rigour of academic research to provide broader objective analysis. While sporadic studies over the years have focused on discrete aspects of the system, there was until very recently no large-scale systematic approach and their conclusions were rarely drawn together into a comprehensive picture. However, major research studies by a number of Scottish universities have begun to fill this gap – for example, The Evaluation of the Children’s Hearings In Scotland, published by the Scottish Executive between 1998 and 2000 (Hallett and Hazel 1998; Hallett and Murray 1998; Waterhouse et al. 1999) and The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, a wide-ranging longitudinal study co-directed by Professor Smith and Dr McAra of Edinburgh University School of Law, begun in 1998 with the intention of following a single year group of 4300 Edinburgh school pupils from the age of 12 through their teens and twenties (Smith and McAra 1998 onwards).

One obvious problem here is that research takes a long time. Politicians, while genuinely committed to improving the quality of life for children in Scotland, demand quick results to illustrate the effectiveness of their policies, and may be unwilling to await the outcomes of major longitudinal studies or to embrace conclusions that appear at odds with their policies. Murray (1998), who devoted many years to research into the Hearings System, was realistic about its likely impact:

Through studies designed to illuminate the workings of justice systems it may be possible to achieve greater self-awareness and more thoughtful and effective practice on the part of the lay and professional participants. At the same time we should not harbour any illusions that research-based knowledge will necessarily prevail over emotional convictions and ideological prejudice. (Murray 1998)

Finding appropriate methods to evaluate the effectiveness of complex public services such as the Hearings System is currently the subject of much debate. Despite a laudable desire to evaluate the effectiveness of the system on an objective basis to provide a basis for replicating ‘what works’, it is not necessarily helpful to transfer the concept of ‘evidence-based practice’ beyond scientific areas such as clinical practice to other areas of public policy such as justice, social welfare and education. Trinder (in Trinder with Reynolds 2000) has pointed out the risks of ‘an overly simplistic and reductionist approach, which fails to do justice to the inherent complexity of practice situations, and may mislead in the search for certainty’. While numerical data will be important, there are limitations in a purely quantitative approach: the selection of outcomes that are measurable at the expense of more qualitative aspects and ‘the focus on scientifically defined interventions appears to shift the focus away from the caring, emotional and supportive aspects of professional work’ (Trinder with Reynolds 2000). This view is backed up by Hill (1999), who comments that ‘theoretical critiques doubt the wisdom of applying a natural science method to complex human interactions’.

Hence, a comprehensive and reliable assessment of the quality of the service and impact of interventions by many different agencies on the complex problems faced by individual children and families within the Children’s Hearings System must be based on a much wider range of approaches, including the reflections of practitioners, the views of service users and judgements by commissioners of the services about such aspects as value for money.

Lack of clear aims

More significant barriers to assessment have been raised, however, by the multiple and often loosely defined aims of the Hearings System, as well as the divergent expectations of the many stakeholders involved. Moreover, intervention via the Children’s Hearings System is seeking to influence a range of circumstances and behaviour (including children’s care and safety, youth crime, school non-attendance), which are affected by a variety of social pressures. This will inevitably make it very difficult to track the specific results of interventions with certainty.

So what is ‘the System’ actually trying to achieve? In answering this question, it is illuminating to return to its roots in the Kilbrandon Report (Kilbrandon 1964). The members of that Committee were quite clear when proposing their radically new approach to juvenile justice that ‘the object must be to effect, so far as this can be achieved by public action, the reduction, and ideally the elimination, of delinquency’. In short, the broadest aim of the system should be to work itself out of a job.

In clearly defining this ambitious general aim, the Committee also proposed that the broad social problem of juvenile offending should be tackled through an individualised approach to changing the behaviour of each child. And in recognising that many offending children were also victims, it also emphasised that its ‘preventive’ approach could be applied only through considering children and their problems in the context of their life circumstances as a whole. The Committee was wise enough to acknowledge that the kind of ‘social education’ it was proposing would not be a quick fix but a subtle long-term process requiring continuous assessment and a flexibility of approach to take account of an individual child’s changing needs. The final outcome would depend on multiple influences and might not be apparent for many years.

From the beginning, then, judgements about the success of the system would require assessment at two levels: its impact on the life of an individual child and, in aggregate, its success or otherwise in reducing the level of juvenile offending on a national scale. Over the years the situation has become even more complex, with a shift in the balance of the system to an ever increasing percentage of children being referred on care and protection rather than offence grounds. In these circumstances, assessment of the effectiveness of the system becomes more difficult: though it may be possible to evaluate the intervention in terms of reduction of risk to the child, is it fair to attribute success or failure when this will depend on its ability to change the behaviour of the adults over whom the system has no direct control?

Different perspectives

Another difficulty is that the question ‘Does the Hearings System work?’ automatically begs a further question: ‘Work for whom?’ Here there are many different perspectives. For the child and family, panel members, the Reporter, social workers and others involved in a case, the primary focus will be on identifying and implementing measures that will address the problems and needs of that individual child. On the other hand, for the police making efforts to arrest and refer offending children, a ‘no formal action’ decision by the Reporter or discharge by a hearing may be a discouraging indication that the System is a soft option. Professionals responsible for the management of children’s cases within Local Authorities, the Crown Office or the courts are likely to focus on process, being judged by the demands of a performance culture that looks at activity levels, time targets and the complexities of inter-agency communication rather than outcomes for children. Victims and communities on the receiving end of offending by children and young people are unlikely to admire a system that adopts a welfare rather than a punishment approach and appears to ignore their interests. The system is clearly not working for a shopkeeper who has his window broken for the fifth time in a month. Members of the Scottish Parliament, tired of receiving complaints about the behaviour of ‘neds’ (a young hooligan, a disruptive adolescent) in their neighbourhoods, may join in the chorus of criticism. ‘Society’, outraged by reports of the barbaric treatment of children by those responsible for their welfare, naturally seeks a scapegoat within ‘the system’ that has failed to protect them from harm.

A further barrier to open and objective assessment is that the confidentiality that governs Children’s Hearings proceedings (a welcome protection for children and families) means that the only cases reported by the media tend to be those that enter the public domain when something goes wrong. By definition, these are the most extreme cases, which lend themselves to the most sensationalised reporting. The impact of negative reports about this small number of cases thus colours public perception of the Hearings System as a whole.

Views of service users

An indispensable facet in any modern assessment of a public service is feedback from its users, variably described as ‘clients’, ‘customers’ or ‘consumers’. Unfortunately a genuine desire to involve children and their families in expressing views about their experiences of the Hearings System and how it has worked for them tends to be hampered by the constraints of confidentiality and by their understandable reluctance to engage in dialogue about their experiences of a system in which they were compulsorily involved. Efforts by voluntary organisations have filled some of the gaps here – for example the report by NCH Scotland (2004) on a wide-ranging consultation exercise, which gave prominence to comments by young people on their experiences of the Hearings System.

But this is not enough: it should surely be incumbent upon a system founded on the principle of participation by children and families routinely to seek and take seriously their views about the quality of the service they receive and the effectiveness of the intervention in addressing their problems.

How should we measure the Hearings System’s ‘success’?

First of all it is essential for any system under scrutiny to develop appropriate criteria by which its performance can be judged. The risk of not doing this is that (as experienced in other parts of the public sector) unsuitable and oversimplistic measurements will simply be imposed, and practitioners will spend time and precious resources counting things that will give very little evidence of the true quality or effectiveness of their work. In face of the varied perspectives already described, it becomes all the more important for the agencies involved in the Hearings System to define collectively and very clearly what it is trying to achieve and to agree some ‘key performance indicators’ to demonstrate its effectiveness.

A comprehensive evaluation will entail examination of the multifaceted aspects of both the process and the outcomes of the Hearing, including compliance with its underlying principles, the efficiency of complex administrative processes, the performance of both professionals and panel members, the effectiveness of different interventions in addressing the problems of individual children and the success of the System in fulfilling its broad general aims for communities and for Scotland.

Evaluating the process

One consideration in the formal processing of concerns about children is the time taken, since victims of abuse or offences usually want a quick response, while a long gap between offence and response may weaken the connection. In 1997 a multi-agency working group was set up by the Scottish Office to devise ways of reducing delays in the Hearings System (Time Intervals Working Group 1997). It found evidence of delay, duplication and lack of communication between the many agencies involved in the management of children’s cases. Over the next three years, after wide consultation, it produced a Blueprint for the Processing of Children’s Hearings Cases (Scottish Office 1999) containing an inter-agency Code of Practice based on a step-by-step analysis of actions undertaken by all agencies involved, and an integrated series of standards and performance targets designed to provide the Hearings System with a national framework for self-evaluation and continuous improvement. The original 14 standards highlighted particular steps in the process where problems had been identified, and set agreed time targets for the agencies concerned. Data produced from the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) database system described earlier has shown that improvements in overall timescales have occurred since this approach was introduced (SCRA 2005).

In our consumer-orientated society it has become common practice for public agencies to define and publish the standards of service their ‘customers’ are entitled to expect. One of the most innovative aspects of the Hearings System was the introduction of a distinctive decision-making process that, while conforming to legal procedures, also embodied a number of principles and values in keeping with its welfare-based approach to care and justice for children. With the best interests of the child as a paramount principle, the process is designed to be as ‘informal’ as possible to encourage children and families to participate in reaching decisions. As well as protecting children’s rights, it is assumed that such involvement in the process should encourage a positive attitude towards co-operation with the disposal. An important aspect of evaluation of the system, therefore, is to see how far the process lives up to these aims.

First steps have been taken as part of the Blueprint programme. Though originally concentrating on the government priority to reduce delay, this was extended to other more qualitative aspects of the service that children and families should have a right to expect, including effective communication, participation, inter-agency co-operation and facilities that meet the needs of all service users. Importantly, it also proposed a system for monitoring compliance with the standards and reporting at Local Authority and national level.

‘Performance’ by agencies

While assessment of the performance of a single agency against activity targets, professional standards, protocols for practice and budgets is relatively straightforward, this is much harder to achieve in an environment like the Hearings System, which, crucially, depends on joint working among many organisations. As Newman points out:

the challenge here is that networks are diffuse and complex, with many reporting lines and relationships cutting across each other. The complexity of the emerging relationships produces a lack of transparency that makes it difficult for government, service users or citizens to hold actors to account. (Newman 2003, p.278)

It is also important to recognise that performance indicators appropriate for one agency may be irrelevant or actively unhelpful for another. For example, as the Consultative Group pointed out during the recent Child Protection Review by the Scottish Executive:

a successful child protection agency might be one that generates high levels of child protection referrals while a very successful national child protection strategy might reduce overall levels of abuse and neglect and referrals to agencies. (Scottish Executive 2002)

To avoid such confusion it is essential to involve practitioners in attempting at least to align the aims by which they will be judged, though it is important to acknowledge that establishing a totally combined set of objectives may not be possible.

Panel members

While assessment of the performance of professionals within the system will come within the ambit of management, the Hearings process is of course crucially dependent on the availability and competence of its volunteer panel members (see Chapter 11), which may raise further issues. Checks on this are currently provided by the involvement of the local Children’s Panel Advisory Committees in the recruitment and monitoring of panel members. In addition, ratification of their appointment depends on satisfactory completion of a nationally approved but locally delivered training programme, and further training is mandatory throughout their period of service.

While these structures provide a built-in quality assurance framework for the panel system, it could be argued that greater emphasis should be placed on the principle of consistency within the national system of juvenile justice, which could lead to the development of a more national approach to the recruitment and training of panel members. Alternatively, it might be maintained that the extent to which the volunteer panel members are ‘representative’ of their communities and how far the selection process takes account of the current political aims for social inclusion and diversity might be taken as a measure of the system’s ‘legitimacy’ as part of the justice system in Scotland. The current review of the system will provide an opportunity to examine such issues.

Outcomes for the individual child

A separate and urgent need is to develop ways of evaluating the Hearings System in terms of the outcomes it achieves for children. The report mentioned earlier, which prompted attention to time intervals and delays, warned that

while speed of case processing might be seen as an indicator of how efficiently a child has been dealt with, this need not necessarily produce the best outcome …The effectiveness of a child’s treatment within the system can only be measured…by an ‘outcome’ much further down the line that the original ‘disposal’ by a hearing… Arguably the most important time interval is that between the decision by a hearing of what is best for a child and the achievement of beneficial change in the child’s life. (Time Intervals Working Group 1997, Section 2.4)

In this connection it is impossible to overstate the importance of a clear plan approved by the Hearing to define the intended outcomes of any supervision requirement imposed and the steps that will indicate progress towards them.

Unfortunately in recent times, owing to shortages of social work staff and pressures on other services such as health and education, timely and complete implementation cannot be taken for granted. This leads to disillusionment among children and families, panel members and other agencies, and without this most vital link between the process and the outcome, it will be impossible to claim that the system is working either for particular children or in general. The Scottish Executive (2002) has acknowledged the importance of this aspect by proposing that the new Children’s Services Inspection System should have responsibility to examine the extent to which Hearings’ decisions are implemented.

From an individual point of view, ‘successful’ intervention by the Hearings System will be when key necessary changes take place: the child stops offending, returns to school or is protected from exposure to a previous risk. The importance of monitoring progress towards this was recognised at the start by the Kilbrandon Committee, which required all cases under an existing supervision requirement to be regularly reviewed by a Hearing to monitor the young person’s progress and the impact of the measures put in place. If supervision was to consist of ‘preventive’ measures based on a child’s needs, it advised, ‘the application of what is essentially an educational process in this way demands both a flexibility of approach and a continuing oversight and scrutiny of the actual measures being applied’ (Kilbrandon 1964, Section 88).

Through the review process the Hearing itself should thus become the initial and arguably the most important monitor of the effectiveness of its own decision.

Effectiveness of ‘the System’

For a broader assessment of the System, we also need to look beyond individual cases to assess the results of supervision and the effectiveness of different interventions in children’s lives. The data therefore need to expand from simply monitoring activity to collating the outcomes achieved by different kinds of intervention and considering trends. To gain insights into what remedies work, we will need to keep track of repeat offenders and the measures put in place to try to break their cycle of offending, making links where necessary across their transition into the adult criminal justice system. In child protection cases, we need to assess rigorously what measures have effectively supported families in providing the kind of care that reduces risk to their children.

As a control mechanism and to evaluate the ‘minimum intervention’ approach enshrined in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, Section 16(3), it would also be instructive to monitor what happens to children who have been diverted from the system by police warning or some kind of non-compulsory measure, though there are ethical questions about maintaining records about children who have not formally been brought within the system.

A good system for Scotland?

In order to judge how well the Hearings System operates nationally we need to be very clear about its overall goals. This would require wide consultation among all stakeholders to agree objectives and desired outcomes. It would seem logical for these to relate to reasons why children are brought into the system in the first place (i.e. the grounds for referral).

Some key questions to ask might include the following.

Is offending by children and young people reducing?

What are the risks to children and are they being protected?

How many children are not attending school?

What are the outcomes for ‘looked after’ and accommodated children leaving care?

What is the incidence of drinking and drug-taking among young people, and what measures are being tried to reduce this?

Data to answer such questions – much of it already collected by individual agencies – could provide a fair and measurable set of indicators to combine into an overall picture by which to judge the system’s success.

Compliance with ‘softer’ aims about how the system safeguards the rights and interests of children could be assessed against the aspirations of the Scottish Executive’s ‘vision for children’ or the Charter for Child Protection (2004a), drawn up by young people themselves.

Public accountability

Another feature of evaluating public services is the obligation on them to account publicly for how they have discharged their responsibilities. In a system as complex as the Children’s Hearings System this will take place at several levels. New models of integrated working mean that as well as monitoring achievement of their own internal objectives, agencies are now increasingly being assessed against goals shared by a number of organisations with whom they are working in partnership. Within the Hearings System, this is likely to take place at Local Authority level, possibly within the context of the Children’s Services Plan and, at national level, through an annual report by the Scottish Executive drawing together information about how the system is performing as a whole.

There are obvious difficulties in this. Newman describes ‘the current shift towards attempting to set goals and targets relating to broad policy outcomes, rather than organizational outputs’, but accepts that ‘the assessment and evaluation of broad outcomes, rather than organizational outputs, presents a number of challenges that currently remain unresolved’. However, this kind of proactive reporting would help raise the profile of the surprisingly little-known system and increase public awareness of how Scotland deals with its children in trouble.

Greater public understanding might also help to counteract the current blame culture, which, when things go wrong, leads to well-intentioned professionals and volunteers themselves becoming scapegoats for the damage caused by children and young people or done to them as victims of adults. Such an outlook inevitably leads to a general undermining of confidence in the effectiveness of the system.


This chapter has tried to suggest some pointers to how we might overcome barriers, clarify expectations and establish shared criteria to judge the success of the Children’s Hearings System, both its processes and the outcomes it achieves for children. This will rely on the development of common systems of data collection and protocols for sharing information, and the combination of different approaches through informed, objective analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data to build up a composite picture. In keeping with modern ideas of accountability, this information should then be reported at individual, local and national level to demonstrate success, identify room for improvement and disseminate good practice.

Despite the many difficulties in this challenging task, it is encouraging to note that one of the key areas explored by the Scottish Executive’s current review of the Children’s Hearings System was the need to evaluate it. A significant number of respondents to the first phase of consultation felt that the objectives of the System needed to be more focused and explicitly linked to delivering effective outcomes for children, and agreed that there was a need for better evaluation of the impact of interventions on children who have been involved in the System. There was also strong support for giving the Children’s Services Inspection System a role in this process. It is to be hoped that these ideas will be further developed in the proposals that emerge in the second phase of the review. Such an approach has the potential to increase the confidence of participants, politicians and public in a system of which Scotland can be justly proud.


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