Grown up politics - an interview with Aileen Campbell

Written by Tom Freeman on 3 March 2014 in Inside Politics

Aileen Campbell on her journey from youngest MSP to the architect of the Children and Young People Bill

"We want Scotland to be the best place in the world to grow up,” says Aileen Campbell, the Minister for Children and Young People, as she passes a wide-reaching and ambitious bill through parliament which embeds the provision of children’s rights in Scottish law. Adoption, care, school dinners and health visiting are just some of the many provisions covered in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill, which might explain why the Stage-3 amendments and passing of the Bill took just over five and a half hours.
 
Holyrood sits down with the minister the next morning and is surprised to find her as fresh-faced as ever. The session in the chamber had been from 2-8.30pm and then Campbell met some of the care leavers who had been cheering in the gallery at the vote. She was presented with a newly framed picture, which takes pride of place in her office, showing her celebrating with Duncan Dunlop, Chief Executive of Who Cares? Scotland, Martin Crewe of Barnardo’s and Alex-Cole Hamilton of Aberlour, the children’s charity, along with young care leavers Ashley, Alex and Tony.
 
It is the young people Campbell points to as an example of how devolution has allowed people to take ownership of policy direction. “Absolutely inspirational, a real credit to the country. They should feel very proud about this Bill, because they have had a huge hand in shaping it,” she says.
After five hours in the chamber, she must have felt exhausted. “Well, it was quite overwhelming, actually, because everyone was quite teary. But they were an amazing bunch of young folk, and they’ve done an awful lot of work to help us get to the place where we are with the care leavers’ part of the Bill.”

Campbell estimates 2,400 people have been consulted and involved in building the Children and Young People Bill, which underlines her feeling that it has been a collaborative effort. It has been “a journey”, she says, not least because of resistance to some aspects including the appointment of a state guardian for all children, but Campbell says she has been grateful for the support from ministerial colleagues and the wider SNP group. “There’s still a lot of work, you know. Going through, publishing and passing the Bill is one part of it. The hard work starts now; to try and make sure we get implementation and guidance, and still be that open government around how that will be shaped in the home,” she says.

Campbell has a secure foundation on which to draw her inspiration. She grew up in rural Perthshire and went to a primary school with only 16 pupils. It sounds idyllic.
“It was. My dad was a tenant farmer, my mum managed to stay at home and bring us up. So my sister and I had both parents around us. Looking back on it now, that’s just so lucky.” Collace Primary School had 16 pupils when she started and had grown to 30 by the time she left. “It was a lovely school, a beautiful school too. It’s the school that my dad went to and my grandparents went to as well, so it means a lot to me,” she says.

Campbell was reminded of it when she travelled to congratulate graduates of the new BA childhood practice qualification at Dundee University. “One of the lecturers was my primary teacher! I hadn’t seen her since I was eleven. It totally threw me. I was like, ‘Mrs Cummings?’ It is Mrs Cummings. ‘Oh… hello Mrs Cummings,’ and she said ‘we’re so pleased with what you’re trying to do with childcare and stuff like that.’ She was a wonderful teacher as well, a good, caring, lovely teacher so it’s no surprise that she’s imparting some of that knowledge and experience she has for other childhood practitioners.”

So, if Campbell was enthusiastic at school, was she more of a bookworm than a playing outdoors type?
“A bit of both. I love reading, and always have. Enid Blyton books, Roald Dahl, all the regular things that you would expect a child to read at that age, but yeah, loved being outdoors, and I think having grown up on a farm and looking back on the freedom that we had, my sister and I, being able to go up the hill, have a picnic up there, or something like that.”

Last year Campbell launched the national play strategy, which encourages outdoor active play. She thinks getting young people outdoors is important. “I really like the work that some of the organisations like the Royal Highland Education Trust, RHET, do in terms of getting kids connected to the land, and connected to where food comes from. So yeah, certainly my upbringing, being outdoors, having that freedom is certainly something that influenced a lot of my thinking,” she says.

Although the rural childhood was great, “it has its challenges as well, especially when you hit adolescence and you realise all the things you want to do are in Perth. You’re having to cycle to the bus stop, then get a bus that is every two hours. It was also a childhood of its time I think too, because I don’t know whether financially now my mum could have stayed at home.”

As a tenant farmer, Campbell’s father differed from the large estate Tory-voting Perthshire farmers of the 1980s. “It wasn’t the best ground, it was a sheep farm, so it was always quite a struggle. You could certainly see that my dad worked very hard, long hours, and not a huge amount in terms of salary for how long he had to work, but for so many other reasons, it was a great place to grow up. You get access to plenty tatties…”

It wasn’t until much later that Campbell understood how she had benefited from a stable upbringing: “When you’re growing up and you’ve got that stability, you’ve had that close contact, that attachment, it’s only when you learn about these words: attachment, relationships, stability, later on in life that you realise that’s what you’ve been lucky enough to have had, I think.”

She believes Scotland is “very lucky” to have Sir Harry Burns, the soon-to-be-former Chief Medical Officer, John Carnochan, former policeman and head of the pioneering Violence Reduction Unit, and child psychologist Suzanne Zeedyk, leading the early years strategy and “talking about the stability that children need, the love, the nurture, the support from day one. They need that strength of attachment and relationships to be able to then have those firm foundations set to allow them to go and achieve in later life.”

The Children and Young People Bill seeks to provide stability to those who may not have as secure a family home to fall back on, especially in terms of young looked-after care leavers being now allowed to stay until they are 21. “While that’s not entirely the way people live their lives – people probably stay with their family far beyond 21 – but actually, giving that signal to these young people that there is going to be stability in their life, and they’re not having to do their exams and at the same time come home at the age of 14 or 15 and fill in a housing application.”

A stable relationship with an adult is critical, she says “and aside from the legislation, we want to develop a national mentoring scheme for children in care who are looked after at home, because we know the value in having solid relationships; what that can mean for a child and young person. Just having someone that takes an interest in your life and is not necessarily paid to do it, it’s something somebody wants to do.”

Campbell’s mother also took an interest in the community. Along with another mum at the school, Alwine, she ran a youth club. “They ran it for, gosh, about 25 years. Youth Club Scotland supported them, and my mum always said Youth Club Scotland are brilliant, they give us so much help and support. Now in my portfolio it’s called Youth Scotland but that’s what they merged into, so it’s been nice that we’ve been able to work with these groups and remember how supportive they have been for so long to so many people trying to provide things for young people in their communities.”

Did she attend the youth club? “Yeah, I went. And it was great. We did lots of things, guising, concerts, Alwine used to write a pantomime… I was once Snow White. Gosh, why am I telling you all this? My mum was Widow Twanky in one.”
In 1996 both Widow Twanky and a sixteen-year-old Snow White signed up to the SNP on the same day, bringing the local branch’s average age down considerably as the youngest and second youngest members.

Campbell had become interested in current affairs at primary school. “One of the things that Mrs Cummings did with us at primary school was to get us to write about what we did at the weekend; she would get the younger kids to do one about their own news, then as you went up, you had to do one about what’s happening in Scotland, then when we got a bit older, we had to write about international news. And I enjoyed doing that, I really did.”

When Campbell was eight she remembers overhearing a conversation between her mother and a friend at a supermarket about the latter’s adult daughter who had moved to England. “She said, ‘she’s happy because she’s moved to England, and she’s getting a year off the poll tax.’ I remember thinking, that’s a bit strange, why is Scotland being treated differently? What’s going on here? Why are we not in control of what we’re doing? So from an early age the set up of the UK didn’t make sense, so when I was 15 or 16, and I guess thoughts progress, I joined the SNP,” she says.

After studying at university and brief stints at hospital radio and working for a construction magazine, Campbell got a job in the Scottish Parliament working for Shona Robison and Nicola Sturgeon: “Goodness, it was brilliant. Shona and Nicola are very high-profile females within the SNP, very strong, very articulate, very dedicated to doing what they do very well, and what an enormous privilege to be able to work for both of them, and see how they both operate, and to see how hard they both work. In different ways, you know. Shona as the constituency MSP; and her husband had just been elected to Westminster as well, and she had just had a young child at that time. Nicola, juggling what she was doing in Glasgow region – she hadn’t been elected to Govan at that point – with her party obligations. And on top of that, everyone knows her, she’s high profile as well, so she was incredibly hard working. There was an awful lot to learn from her.”

The 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections saw Campbell elected, to her surprise, even after what she thought was a “good campaign” for the safe Labour seat of Clydesdale. “The 2007 election was wonderful for the SNP, but I hadn’t fully appreciated how it was going to impact upon me, and because the Clydesdale count happens in East Kilbride and the regional count happens in Dumfries, I wasn’t able to be in both places. I wanted to be at the East Kilbride centre for the Clydesdale count, and it wasn’t until the morning that Marco Biagi, who is now an MSP himself, phoned me up saying, ‘do you know that you’ve been elected?’ and I’d gone home. I was in my bed at that time. I was like, ‘my goodness, you’re kidding me on?’ He said, ‘yeah’, so I had to go and check it out on the computer. It was quite an event.”

She was the youngest MSP at the time, and encountered some difficulty getting people to take her seriously. “Sometimes people would maybe want to do the ‘that’s nice, pet’ kind of stuff, but actually, I think being young and female was the issue. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anyone’s intentionally done that, but just maybe the tone. But now I’m married, I have a child, and I’m a bit older now.”

Not just older, Campbell is now a minister with a portfolio who has just passed an ambitious and complicated Bill through parliament. While resistance to perceptions of the ‘nanny state’ from the Conservatives and the Christian right may have been expected, Labour’s issues with the Bill centred on the costs of universal services such as the named person. Campbell believes it ties into the ‘something for nothing’ culture maligned by Labour leader Johann Lamont.

"Universal services are a public good. We’ve got the NHS, we’ve got education. We’ve just gone through the Burns season there, and the reason that Burns is so widely known, and we’ve been so proud to celebrate Burns’ life, is because he came from a system which provided education for not just those who could afford it, but there was the principle that education is a right, and shouldn’t be based on your ability to pay. From our point of view in the SNP, those are sound principles by which to form your ideas about how to create a country. Universal services are the way in which you can help the most people, and make sure nobody falls through the cracks. That’s why the named person is based in that system. It’s proven to work, and I think some of the comments from Labour were unfortunate because essentially, they were grudging in their acceptance of it, but it was a bit peculiar given their party’s history why they would want to criticise something like that,” says Campbell.

Free school meals and universal childcare for three and four year olds are also important parts of the Bill.
“In terms of the named person, we’ll never know when a child or young person will need a bit of support or help. A child isn’t born with an ‘at risk’ sign on its head, we need to be there for families, and I think it has been unfortunate the narrative that has developed around some of that, but from practice what we know from Highlands is that this works. Parents are hugely important as well. The Bill’s going to save parents money for childcare and remove some of the barriers they face trying to balance working lives.”

The commitment to provide 600 hours of free nursery provision will be expensive however. Nursery teachers have expressed concerns that it might result in quantity over quality, with local authorities potentially opting to take qualified teachers out of nursery provision. Nursery care is not the same as nursery education, they argue.

“If you intervene effectively and with high quality then that is the only way which young people benefit. They can’t just be ‘mass-produced’ or whatever. It has to be of high quality,” says Campbell. Childcare expert Professor Iram Siraj has been appointed to undertake a review of the early years workforce. This will follow up on a review undertaken by Education Scotland in 2012, which has led to increasing qualifications of early years practitioners such as the degree course in Dundee that Mrs Cummings lectures on.

Campbell says Scotland must be “careful how we expand” to ensure quality is maintained. “As John Carnochan says, in Scotland ‘we don’t have a curriculum for mediocrity we have a Curriculum for Excellence’. That’s ambitious, and we want to build on that,” she says.

Siraj and her team will look at ways to develop the workforce “to cope with the further expansion ambitions that we have, not only through the Bill, but also through the White Paper.”

Campbell herself is a mother. Her young son, Angus, is looked after by her husband, whom she says has been “enormously supportive” in taking on the primary care role. “I wouldn’t have been able to do half of what I’ve been able to do had he not been so supportive, and been a really great dad for Angus. That’s tough for him, because not many dads are stay-at-home dads, so we know that childcare is not just an issue for women, it’s an issue for both parents, all parents. Our own experience has certainly taught us that.”

Campbell’s aspirations for Angus to reach adulthood in ‘the best place in the world to grow up’ mean that he will have high expectations. “I want for Angus what every parent wants for their child. To grow up happy and healthy, fulfilled, being able to experience lots of things in life. That’s what most parents want for their children. I want him to be true to himself and I want him to explore lots of things and to get as much out of life as he can. And I want him to be able to grow up in a country that has the opportunity in itself to deliver for him as well.”
Of course, Campbell believes Scotland needs to be independent to achieve this, including the White Paper pledge to “transform childcare”.

Isn’t that possible under current powers?

“The fact is, unless you’ve got powers over taxation, you can’t do the things set out in the White Paper. We need to have access to the resource we’ll create when we’re generating more money through allowing more parents to get back in work. We need that money to go back into childcare. So unless you’ve got all the tools at your disposal, you can’t transform childcare. You can’t set out rebuilding a country that doesn’t have nuclear weapons, that doesn’t enter illegal wars. I want Scotland to be able to take its place in the world for good reasons, to be the centre of peace and reconciliation, to make sure we’re a fairer society. That’s the kind of country I want Angus to grow up in.

“But at the moment, my most important job is to be his mum as well. I need to make sure I get my own work-life balance absolutely correct.”

 

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