Whole system approach to young people who offend: evaluation

An evaluation of our Whole System Approach (WSA) to young people who offend in Scotland.

Executive Summary


1. The Scottish Government Whole System Approach for Children and Young People who Offend ( WSA) aims to prevent unnecessary use of custody and secure accommodation wherever possible, through the availability and use of services, and; to seek opportunities to engage such young people, by putting in place a more streamlined and consistent response that works across all systems and agencies (a 'whole system' approach) to achieve better outcomes for young people and their communities.

2. The WSA encompasses three main policy strands: Early and Effective Intervention ( EEI), which aims to reduce referrals to the Children's Reporter via pre-referral screening ( PRS); Diversion from Prosecution which aims to keep young people away from the criminal justice process, and; Reintegration and Transition supporting young people in secure care and custody, and planning for their reintegration into the community.

3. An aim of the WSA is to try to ensure that only those under 18 who really need formal measures - such as compulsory supervision by the Children's Hearings System, prosecution, secure care or custody - are taken through the process.

Aims and Scope

4. The Scottish Government commissioned research to evaluate the process of implementing the WSA in three case study areas, and identify progress towards the intended outcomes of WSA.

5. The evaluation combined scrutiny of WSA policy documentation and guidance notes, with a set of 33 qualitative interviews with WSA practitioners and stakeholders, observations of WSA meetings in each case study area, and quantitative analysis of relevant management data.

6. The evaluation examines the operation of the WSA in three Scottish local authorities, each with a very different geographical, demographic and organisational backdrop. The small-scale nature of the evaluation means that the findings should be read with caution, and are not necessarily generalisable to the wider population or to all local authorities in Scotland.

7. Where applicable, we have sought to draw out common themes and findings that were evident in all three authorities, and which may reflect the implementation of the WSA more widely. In other places, we comment on differences in policy and practice, which cannot be generalised although they may be reflective of activities in other parts of Scotland. A wider analysis of all local authorities would be necessary to determine how representative these findings are of WSA across Scotland.

8. Overall, the findings in the evaluation may be used to share learning about how to adopt a WSA approach in responding and dealing with offending by young people, and how to promote the sustainability of this approach.


9. Patterns of recorded crime show a distinct fall over time in all three case study areas which pre-date either EEI or WSA; however, there is evidence to suggest that there have been significant falls in youth offending since the mid-2000s which ties in with the early implementation of GIRFEC and the Preventing Offending by Young People: A Framework for Action on youth offending.

10. There have been significant falls in referral to the Children's Reporter on both offence and non-offence grounds in all three areas, with the fall in offence referrals being most pronounced. The impact of EEI or WSA on patterns of joint referral to the Procurator Fiscal and Children's Reporter is not entirely clear; however, there are encouraging signs of some increase for 16 and 17 year olds.

11. Consistent with an early evaluation of the WSA in 2012 (MacQueen and McVie, 2013), practitioners expressed a clear commitment to the principles, goals and values of the WSA.

12. Improvements in partnership working, and in particular information-sharing and shared learning across agencies was reported in all three local authority areas and it is evident that the WSA has been a galvanising factor in driving this change in relationships.

13. The case study areas demonstrate some key differences in their baseline conditions, notably in relation to youth offending rates and referrals to PRS. These differences within local authorities help to explain the different approaches and processes adopted by the authorities in implementing the WSA and some of the differences in observed outcomes.

14. Flexibility in implementing WSA across local authority areas may be necessary to adapt to different contextual conditions and local demands.

15. Notwithstanding the need for flexibility, there are some areas which may benefit from greater consistency across areas, including eligibility criteria for the WSA (for example, whether young people on supervision may be referred). This may be a matter of clarifying existing rules, or providing further guidance.

16. There is strong evidence that the three work stream activities are fully implemented in each case study area, although there are differences across each area which are related to, and which reflect, the variations in local authority size, scale and structure.

17. Practitioners believe that the WSA facilitates improved outcomes for young people through closer multi-agency working, closer information sharing and the strong incorporation of welfarist values in decision-making and practice, although systematic evidence of individual outcomes was difficult to obtain.

18. There is widespread support for PRS, and it has brought together a wider range of partners. The role of the police in facilitating the WSA is well established and promotes good working relationships, with Juvenile Liasion Officers ( JLO) [1] in particular acting as drivers for change within Police Scotland.

19. The PRS process, in terms of allocating actions to partner agencies, functions well in each authority. Cases identified as suitable for early diversion are discussed at multi-agency meetings, and the diversity of expertise allows the group to respond in a swift and informed fashion.

20. PRS is a vital component in promoting information sharing between partners, and the face to face nature of the PRS process develops trust and professional understanding.

21. PRS outcomes vary by authority, for example, there are different provisions in terms of the balance of statutory services and third sector organisations. This influences the ability to share information and make collective decisions, and leads to differential access to resources.

22. Diversion from prosecution provides a good example of marked variation by authority, both in terms of extent of use and trends over time. Overall there has been an increase in diversion, although the percentage age-distribution of diversion cases varies across the three local authorities.

23. Diversion from prosecution may function more effectively if the default position is diversion; and the onus is placed on the Procurator Fiscal to justify prosecution for 16 and 17 year olds, rather than vice versa.

24. The use of other alternatives to prosecution, such as fiscal and police fines and warnings, has decreased in recent years for 16 and 17 year olds, although it is not clear if this is due to a reduction in offending or a shift in the use of such disposals.

25. The structure of court support services varied across local authorities. Some commissioned court services, whilst others undertook the work in-house, which allowed control of the process and culture as well as the allocation of skilled staff to more demanding cases. This is another example of how flexibility allows teams to respond to fit local needs and means.

26. The WSA operates within a broader landscape - in both policing and social work - where working practice and arrangements may differ from the WSA ethos. There can be a difficult balance for practitioners between responding to young people's needs, as per the WSA, and reacting to offending behaviour.

27. The long term sustainability of WSA in any given authority is predicated upon staff expertise and their dedication to the WSA ethos, as well as diversifying its sources of influence. Champions are important resources in this context.

28. 'Buy-in' to WSA policy and practice cannot be assumed; ongoing work is required to sustain WSA values across and within partner agencies, particularly if WSA resources and responsibilities are allocated to different agencies or partners.


Back to top