TERRY BLACK'S 14-year-old son, Daniel, set fire to his school on Merseyside two years ago, just after the summer term had finished. He broke into a classroom with three other boys. Daniel's job was to light the match and hand it to another boy, who dropped it into a bottle of turpentine. There was a strong wind that day, and the place went up in seconds. The damage was extensive: around pounds 80,000.

Mr Black first heard about the fire when it was reported in the local paper. 'I pointed it out to Daniel. He looked surprised - maybe at the extent of the damage. The following week the police called.'

He was stunned when Daniel admitted being involved. 'The day Daniel was arrested was my wedding anniversary. My first reaction, like that of any responsible parent, was: 'It can't be our Daniel. He wouldn't do anything like that'.

'After about 10 minutes we all left the house and the police took him straight down to the school and around the grounds to look for evidence. Within about 30 seconds they had found the empty bottle of turps.'

The case went to the Crown Court and nine months later Daniel was convicted of arson. By this time he had been expelled from school. His parents' marriage cracked under the strain.

'In one way, I blame myself for what happened,' says his father. 'I saw Daniel and his mates leave the house carrying a plastic bag. If I had checked the bag to see what was inside it, I would have seen the bottle of turps. I felt guilty. He is my son . . . and he's a criminal.'

Britain is facing an epidemic of arson by young people, particularly in schools. Statistics show that in 1990 fire brigades were called to 23,597 fires that were believed to have been started deliberately (nearly a quarter of the total number), of which 1,132 were educational establishments. Arson is often associated with burglary and vandalism, and many fire raisers are young males aged between 14 and 18, though there is evidence that more young women are becoming involved.

Concern about the rising incidence of arson attacks led last year to the establishment of the Arson Prevention Bureau. Jointly funded by the Home Office and the insurance industry, one of its main priorities is the protection of schools.

The APB has commissioned a study from Sheffield University into school arson and effective measures to combat it. The project involved 450 headteachers throughout the United Kingdom and the results will be published next month. It is also investigating the personalities of convicted arsonists and the motives behind their crimes.

So what makes young people want to set fire to their schools? Most psychologists believe there is no such thing as a stereotypical arsonist. According to Masud Hoghughi, director of the Aycliffe Centre for Children, Co Durham, fire raising must be seen in the context of a wide range of social and emotional problems. 'Our approach is to deal with people first and fire raising second,' he says.

Arson may be part of a wider pattern of antisocial behaviour - for example, graffiti or other forms of deliberate damage to property. Schools use a lot of wood and plasterboard and they make easy, large-scale targets for fire setting, Mr Hoghughi says.

Aycliffe is one of Britain's principal centres for treating children with severely disordered behaviour, and around a quarter of its current intake of 120 children have been convicted of serious arson offences. Many of them have repeatedly offended. All undergo an intensive assessment and treatment programme.

Individual motives for fire raising vary, Mr Hoghughi says. A child who has been sexually abused may act out of revenge; others are motivated by excitement, especially where the arson is a gang activity.

One of those who attended Aycliffe in the past was Michael 'Mini' Cooper, a convicted arsonist from a small mining village in Co Durham. In the mid-Seventies, Cooper, who was just 10, set fire to his home, knowing that his parents were asleep upstairs. He recalled later how he saw his father dancing naked around the flames on the roof of the burning building. It began a lifelong pattern of behaviour, and he is now serving a life sentence for setting fire to a factory, causing up to pounds 750,000 worth of damage. Inside, more than 20 people were working the night-shift, but, happily, no one was injured.

Not all cases of fire raising are so dramatic. But arson can be addictive; it has a high stimulus value and leaves the offender on a 'high'. 'Fascination with fire can so easily get out of hand,' Mr Hoghughi says, and unless it is dealt with effectively at an early stage the practice is likely to continue.

Mr Hoghughi compares it to sexual abuse 'because it is so damaging in its consequences to other people'. The child who sets fire to property will not necessarily 'grow out of it', he says. 'Fire raising is a developmental and clinical aberration and needs to be dealt with as such.'

Staff at Aycliffe work closely with local fire stations and the centre has just begun training courses for fire officers to work with young fire raisers in their homes. Treatment also includes visits to fire stations, watching videos of fires, and playing card and board games that highlight the risks of fire. Staff aim to reshape a child's behaviour, transforming a curiosity for fire into an enthusiasm for prevention. During one session a young arsonist may be asked to start and then tackle a real but controlled blaze - in a frying pan, for example - with cream cakes as a reward for prompt action.

Research has shown that young fire raisers are more aggressive than other children at Aycliffe. Andrew Muckley, a psychologist at the centre, says some non-arsonists who are prone to self-harm are directing their hostility inwards, while feelings of hostility in fire raisers are externalised.

'We need to address the hostility and not just the fires,' Mr Muckley says. 'They light a fire to get rid of the anger. We need to help them express it more constructively.

'We are dealing with a subculture. Their friends light fires, so they go and light fires together.' Arsonists may often steal a car and then burn it, he says. One young arsonist saw this as providing triple 'benefits': the fire could be enjoyed, the evidence destroyed and the owner could claim the insurance money.

The underlying cause of a child's fire raising may be a lack of communication skills or a poor relationship with parents. 'Very rarely do they deliberately hurt someone,' Mr Muckley says. 'Children come to us for a variety of reasons, mainly because they have had a bad deal from adults, but they are not usually vindictive.'

Like other very serious crimes such as murder and rape, arson is likely to attract a life sentence. And, under section 53 (2) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, juveniles may in theory receive a sentence up to the adult maximum for crimes where the adult sentence is 14 years or more.

Daniel Black, however, was lucky: he was placed under a two-year supervision order (similar to a probation order), which required him to attend one of the city's juvenile justice centres for an intermediate treatment programme. This includes a new, intensive fire-awareness course that is intended to confront and challenge fire raising behaviour.

The fire-awareness course was set up by Liverpool social services and Merseyside fire brigade in 1991 to deal with serious arson offences in the region. It means that many young offenders such as Daniel avoid custodial sentencing: even when an entire school complex was recently burnt down, resulting in pounds 3m worth of damage, the young people in question were given non-custodial sentences.

Dave Webb, principal social worker with the Millbank juvenile justice team in Liverpool, which runs the programme, says that none of the young fire raisers referred to Millbank has re- offended, or looks likely to do

so.

He is quick to stress that the course is no soft option. 'In prison, people don't have to think about what they've done and why, and the effect on the victims, but simply do their time. On the course here, we confront those issues, and young people find it very uncomfortable. They are embarrassed. We go through every single detail, every step they took along the way, until the whole building was up in flames. They have to relive it, and that is not a pleasant experience for them.'

On the course, the young offenders are able to confront others who were involved in the same crime. 'One or two have sobbed their hearts out when they were confronted with the potential consequences to victims, when they have realised that the fire officers attending the blaze could have been killed. They had not realised what it

involved.

'At the end of the course, we engage them in writing letters of apology to each of the people they offended against, including the headteachers at their schools.'

The young arsonists who have undergone the programme are very remorseful, he says. 'A fire starts very small and, for young people particularly, the concept of a large fire is too big a 'leap' to make. They light a small fire, they might walk away and leave it. They have no concept of how it may end up.'

The names of the family in this article have been changed.

'I didn't think we would really do it'

WHEN she was 16, Jane (not her real name) tried to burn down the children's home where she was in care, causing several thousand pounds' worth of damage.

'It started off as a joke,' she says. 'I'd heard the place was going to be made into an old people's home or something. It was a way of getting back at the teacher there. She was a cow.

'There were four of us, all girls. Someone suggested it and the rest of us agreed. We were laughing about it. I didn't think we were actually going to do it.

'It only took one match. I lit it. I didn't know whether the place was going up or not. I just got out afterwards.'

One of the girls informed the police shortly afterwards, however, and a week later, Jane was taken to the police station for questioning. 'I was frightened when I got to the station. I made out I had nothing to do with it, pretended I'd been somewhere else at the time. They were quite tough, more tough on me than on the others. I'd already been in trouble shoplifting and been cautioned by the police. If ever there was anything wrong in school, I'd get the blame. They let the other three go before me, even though I had my social worker with me.'

Jane's case went to a magistrates' court and then to the Crown Court. She was given a 60-day supervision order. 'I met the fire brigade and was shown videos about fires. I had to write the whole story down. It helped me.'

'I did regret it afterwards. I told my sister and she called me a stupid cow and that was it. It's all done with now.'

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