The Early Years Framework is an ambitious vision but will councils have the resources to deliver it?
“The early years are a key opportunity to shape the Scotland of the future,” according to Children’s Minister Adam Ingram.
And in the Government’s fight to “end the poverty and disadvantage which has disfigured Scotland for generations”, the Early Years Framework is a chief weapon.
But at a time of shrinking public resources, how will the ambitious aspirations be turned to reality?
The question recurred at the recent Holyrood Implementing the Early Years Framework conference. The framework, launched in December by the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) set out a strategy for intervention in early life, from childcare to play and parenting.
In the hall of stakeholders, consensus was tangible on the policy but how it would be implemented in a tight financial climate was a common concern.
The minister admitted the reality. Public money to deliver the framework will be increasingly stretched: “In the last ten years we’ve seen continuous growth in resources coming into public services but I think we all realise that that growth is at an end. We certainly will be battling to maintain the level of resources which really underlines the importance of making sure that we get the value for the resources that we are actually applying just now.” Money is not the magic bullet, however, Ingram cautioned. Greater resources do not necessarily equate to better outcomes for young people. The focus must be on improving services, he said, by creating a highly skilled workforce and a more joined up approach between service providers where agencies share information and use a common language. Efficiency and value for money was the bottom-line message.
“I’m certainly conscious of the fact that reports that I get, for example, Social Work Inspection reports, the Social Work Inspection Agency tells me that there’s actually no correlation between the amount spent per child in local authority areas and the quality of provision that’s provided,” he told delegates.
“A lot of the quality of provision is of course down to the skills of the workforce but also how the workforce is managed and how resources are deployed. So I’ll certainly be looking for improved performance from managers, right throughout all the public services. I think also how resources are deployed can help us in terms of moving away from the kind of crisis intervention system that we currently have to early intervention and prevention.” Workforce skills are key to this quality drive. Research shows that in settings with staff that have higher qualifications, children will make more progress. So as part of his bid to boost quality of provision, the minister announced funding for new teaching courses at the universities of Aberdeen and Stirling, with a specialism in early years education. The Government will provide £150,000 to trial a postgraduate degree for teachers at Aberdeen and £60,000 to Stirling to develop a primary teaching degree that specialises in early years. Starting this autumn, graduates will have the expertise to teach across preschool and primary.
The critical period of early years provides a window where interventions can have an impact on a person’s life, delegates were told throughout the day. The point was underlined by Dr Fiona Forbes, Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. The brain develops most rapidly in the first four years of life, to 90 per cent of its adult size, she told the conference, so positive experiences during this time must be maximised. And fundamental to a happy childhood is good parenting. Though often taken for granted, parenting skills don’t come naturally to all, Ingram said, and to support those who need it, the Government will shortly launch a marketing campaign.
“I think basically what we’re going to focus on is the importance of building a relationship from day one between parent and child and we’re going to launch this through a television advertising campaign,” he explained.
“There’s a lot of joy to be had from that relationship between parents and children and I think we need to reinforce that message and get it across to people. There are, unfortunately, a lot of young people out there who haven’t had the benefit of a stable family background themselves and don’t necessarily have good parental role models to follow. So I think we’ve got a wider duty as a government to say to folk, ‘Look, it’s ok to come forward and ask for help’. This is probably the hardest job we have as adults in terms of raising children and there’s very little formal support or training out there to help people.” This shift from “crisis intervention” to “early intervention” will of course require a corresponding shift in resources. But how will that happen? Jim Stephen, Policy Manager, Children and Young People at COSLA raised the question: “We refer to resource transfer but from where? By whom?” According to Stephen, service providers need to be “courageous, sophisticated and innovative on resourcing”.
“We need to make better use of existing resources which are already very substantial; we need to look at financial models we might put in place so that over time the shift in resources can take place to the early years without lessening of support to any children and families. Those working in relevant agencies maybe need to be a little less protective of holding on to resources and we really must look across agencies for duplication and overlap. It’s a tall order, I know, because budgets are tight and likely to get tighter… A major challenge for sure but it can’t be allowed to stall the framework.”