Changing perceptions: Scotland's Year of Young People

Written by Kate Shannon on 8 February 2018 in Inside Politics

2018 is the Year of Young People but will it actually make a difference to their lives?   

Holyrood toddler: Picture credit - David Anderson

This year, Scotland’s young people will take centre stage.

In November, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched the Year of Young People 2018, which is designed to provide a platform for those aged eight to 26 and give them the opportunity to influence decision making around issues affecting their lives.

Sturgeon said: “This is an opportunity to shine a light on the fantastic contribution young people make to life in Scotland.

“The Year of Young People will give young people a new platform and new opportunities for their voices to be heard in all parts of our society and hopefully help to foster a better understanding, co-operation and respect between generations.

“The talents of our young people span the length and breadth of the country – evident in the great programme they have helped to put together. I want to thank all of the partners involved in supporting this initiative, who have helped to put together what I am sure will be a wonderful celebration of young people in 2018.”

To support the year, a group of young leaders called Communic18, will work with organisations throughout 2018.

Communic18 member, Lauren Asher, 18, from Dumfries, said: “I wanted to be involved in the year to help challenge the perceptions of young people.

“I have suffered from mental health issues and as part of my role, I hope to give more young people a voice on this issue so that we can change attitudes and ensure young people are having their say on issues which affect their lives.”

Other partners involved in delivering the Year of Young People 2018 include EventScotland, Young Scot, YouthLink Scotland, Children in Scotland, Scottish Youth Parliament, and Creative Scotland. 

Louise Macdonald OBE, chief executive of Young Scot, believes this is a “fantastic opportunity” to put young people centre stage. 

“This is a chance for organisations and policymakers alike to work with young people to improve policy and services for everyone across Scotland,” she added.

“Young people are doing phenomenal things every single day, the Year of Young People is a chance for us to celebrate their achievements and let everyone know how great our young people truly are.”

In his New Year message, Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said the Year of Young People offered a timely opportunity to demand change for poorer youngsters.

He said: “The coming year will see Labour push the government even harder to make those desperately needed changes and make the parliament work in the interests of the unemployed, the dispossessed, the homeless, those struggling in poverty, and all those whose lives are currently predestined because of where they’re born.

“Tackling inequality and poverty, particularly child poverty, is at the heart of Scottish Labour’s mission – and should be at the heart of Scottish society too.”

A recent survey for the Scottish Government examined the attitudes and perceptions of more than 1,000 adults towards 13-19 year olds.

It found that those who said they personally knew a young person were much more likely to be positive in their views of young people in general. But a quarter viewed young people as lazy, more than a third saw them as irresponsible and almost four in ten thought they were lacking in communication skills.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said it showed there was still more to be done to change attitudes across society towards young people.

He said: “Too often, teenagers feel that others view them negatively simply because of their age. This can really have an impact on their own wellbeing and self-esteem.

“We must all do more to talk up our young people, showcase their strengths and instil them with self-confidence as they move towards adulthood.

“The Year of Young People is designed to foster more respect and understanding between generations. It will show everyone across Scotland just how talented our young people are but also how challenging their daily lives can be – contrary to what some of us might think.

“I hope it will go some way to challenging those negative perceptions reported in this survey.”

Tackling inequality is vitally important to improve the lives of Scotland’s young people. One of the big moves from the Scottish Government last year was the introduction of the baby boxes.

Starting in August, all babies in Scotland were gifted a box full of essential items aimed at reducing inequality and promoting health.

The Scottish Government said the boxes showed its determination that every child, regardless of their circumstances, should get the best start in life. Each baby box contains a large number of items which are not only practical but designed to help tackle inequality and improve health. The box itself also doubles as a safe sleep space, awarded British Safety standard accreditation as a crib for domestic use.

Earlier this month, Maree Todd, Minister for Childcare and Early Years, helped to pack and prepare the contents of some new baby boxes. She also confirmed that Scottish small-and-medium-sized-enterprises will be able to bid for the contract to provide the contents of the box.

Todd said: “It feels very special to be packing up baby clothes, thermometers, scratch mittens and other extremely useful items for some of our very first new-borns of 2018.

“The baby box demonstrates that as a society, we value each and every child born in Scotland and want to give them all an equal start in life.

“Following a very successful first year in 2017, with 77 per cent take-up, more than 22,000 boxes delivered and high parent satisfaction with the contents, we want to continue to build on this in 2018. That is why, now the baby box scheme is more fully established, we can start to make improvements to develop the economic as well as the social benefits.

“I very much hope Scottish businesses will embrace the opportunity to bid for the contract to provide some of the contents of Scotland’s baby box next year.”

Meanwhile, in October, it was announced that smacking children would be banned in Scotland.

The move would make the country the first in the UK to outlaw the physical punishment of children.

Ministers had previously said they did not support parents using physical chastisement, but had “no plans” to bring forward legislation. However, the Scottish Government then confirmed it would ensure a bill lodged by Green MSP John Finnie would become law.

Under Finnie’s proposals, children would get the same legal protection as adults. At present, parents in Scotland can claim a defence of “justifiable assault” when punishing their child – although the use of an “implement” in any punishment is banned, as is shaking or striking a child on the head.

Finnie, a former policeman, tabled a member’s bill at Holyrood calling for the “justifiable assault” defence to be scrapped and for children to be given “equal protection from assault”.

The Green MSP said Scotland “cannot be thought of as the best place in the world for children to grow up while our law gives children less protection from assault than anybody else in society”.

He added: “It is especially welcome that the Scottish Government has reiterated its support for my bill because there is clear evidence that the use of physical punishment is detrimental to children’s long-term health and wellbeing.

“Giving children equal protection against assault will send a clear message to all of us about how we treat each other and underpin Scotland’s efforts to reduce violence.”

Banning smacking has been backed by the UN, academics, charities and former Scottish children’s commissioner Tam Baillie, while the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents and Scottish Borders Council have supported Finnie’s bill.

Children’s charity NSPCC Scotland said the move was a “welcome step on the road towards fairness and equality for children”, and that a change in the law would be “a common-sense move”.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Mr Finnie’s proposals are not a Scottish Government bill, however, we will ensure the proposals become law.
“We believe physical punishment can have negative effects on children which can last long after the physical pain has died away. We support positive parenting through, for example, funding for family support services.”

However, there are still serious issues in Scotland directly affecting children and young people.

Undoubtedly, the biggest of these is poverty. Figures released last year showed 260,000 children were living in relative poverty in Scotland, up from 220,000 the previous year. This equates to one in four children in Scotland living in poverty. 

Looking across the UK as a whole, a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) showed that 400,000 more children in the UK are living in poverty than five years ago, driven by changes in welfare policy, cuts to public services and limited wage growth. While the rise was smaller in Scotland, JRF warned this progress was at a “turning point”.
Ministers welcomed the JRF’s recognition that Scotland had taken action to protect those on low incomes but acknowledged the economic challenges presented by the current political climate across the UK.  

One such child affected by poverty is Kirsty, our fictional Holyrood baby. Born as the current intake of MSPs took their seats in the Scottish Parliament, Kirsty lives in one of Scotland’s most deprived communities which has already had an effect on her life chances.

Kirsty is already far less likely to perform well at school or be offered opportunities to fulfil her potential than children from more advantaged backgrounds.

It’s anticipated she will experience the stress or trauma of an adverse childhood experience, which has been proven to have a direct impact on a child’s life chances.

She is more likely to be obese, have serious illness or suffer from mental ill-health by age three.

Recent life expectancy figures show Kirsty is expected to die 7.8 years before her peers in the least deprived parts of the country.

In a bid to tackle some of these issues, the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament in November and sets out four statutory goals which the government is expected to achieve by 2030.

It was brought forward in response to the repeal of sections of the UK Child Poverty Act, to reinstate the use of a set of income-based targets.

Equalities Secretary Angela Constance called the bill a “historic milestone” in the fight against poverty.

While the legislation was passed by MSPs unanimously, Scottish Labour’s Mark Griffin’s closing statement was telling.

He said: “The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The passing of this legislation in itself will not lift a single child out of poverty. The proof of the pudding will be in the delivery plans that the government puts in place and the funds that are allocated in the budget to tackle child poverty.”

Childhood obesity is also another major issue in Scotland. In 2016, 14 per cent of children aged two to 15 were at risk of obesity, with a further 15 per cent at risk of being overweight.  

Since 1998, the percentage of children aged two to 15 at risk of being overweight (including obese) has fluctuated between 28 and 33 per cent, and was 29 per cent in 2016.

Obesity can reduce people’s overall quality of life. It creates a strain on health services and leads to premature death due to its association with serious chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and hyperlipidaemia, which are all major risk factors for cardiovascular disease. 

The two major lifestyle factors associated with the growth of obesity are physical inactivity and poor diet.

Scotland’s poorest children are also increasingly likely to be obese, while those in affluent areas are not, an NHS Scotland report released in July found.

The percentage of children starting school who are in danger of becoming obese was seven per cent in the most affluent areas, but nearly double that at 13 per cent for the least wealthy.

In October, Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell released proposals to tackle obesity in Scotland which include measures to restrict promotions and advertising of junk food, something Cancer Research UK and other obesity campaigners have been calling for.

Doctors will be able to refer patients to weight management schemes, thanks to £40m investment by government.

Campbell said the plans could compare to previous ambitions around tobacco and alcohol, which saw restrictions on promotions in shops and pricing.

“Obesity significantly increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and depression,” she said.

“Simply put, it’s harming the people of Scotland. It also puts pressure on the NHS, other public services and our economy.

“That is why we need commitment and action from everyone across all sectors and at all levels including government, citizens, the public sector and businesses right across the country.”

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s Officer for Scotland, Professor Steve Turner, said he would be recommending the addition of weight-reduction targets.

He added: “This comprehensive set of proposals would go a long way towards tackling Scotland’s obesity epidemic.

“We know that the seeds for a lifetime of unhealthy weight are sown at an early age and we also know what’s driving this.”

Changes are being made to improve the lives of children and young people but it seems that there’s still some way to go before Scotland really is the best place in the world to grow up.  

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