Kirsty, the Holyrood baby, turns two: childcare choices

Written by Tom Freeman on 8 May 2018 in Inside Politics

Can Kirsty, the Holyrood baby, reach her development goals in adversity?

Kirsty, the Holyrood baby, turns two - David Anderson/Holyrood

Kirsty, the Holyrood baby, is now entering a phase of life famous for tears and tantrums, the ‘terrible twos’.

Born as MSPs took their seats for the start of the Scottish Parliament’s fifth session, Kirsty lives in one of Scotland’s most deprived communities with her mother, Caley.

Scott, her father, lives apart from them but is involved in her care.

Kirsty is a fictional character, but the Scotland she is growing up in is not. It is a Scotland which has seen rising poverty. Like Kirsty’s first year, her second year also saw a rise in poverty in Scotland, as the income of families like Kirsty’s fell further behind those on middle incomes. 

And as Holyrood has revealed through Kirsty’s first two years, there is a wealth of evidence to show that her circumstances will have an impact on her outcomes, life chances, mental and physical health and attainment in the future.

Kirsty is now entering an independent phase. Bedtimes have become a battle of wills, she has started trying to dress herself and she pushes herself around Caley’s flat on a sit-on ladybird with wheels.

Apart from Kirsty’s habit of exclaiming that she “needs a poo” in the supermarket queue, Caley does have some concerns about Kirsty’s communication. 

Kirsty can speak a few short sentences, but she seems quiet and reluctant to talk.

Kirsty was one of the first children to get a health visitor review at 15 months, a service which began last year, but Caley doesn’t know if any concerns were flagged up.

Another review is due when Kirsty hits 27-30 months. That is, provided there are health visitors available and that Caley takes up the service. 

With a vacancy rate of 9.1 per cent, Scotland’s health visitors are stretched to meet demand, despite a Scottish Government commitment to recruit 500 extra health visitors between 2014 and 2018.

Ministers insist the expansion is on track, and coverage of the review is almost 90 per cent – even in areas of deprivation.

However, in these reviews, more than one in four children from the most deprived areas (26 per cent) has at least one developmental concern identified by the health visitor, compared to one in nine for the least deprived areas, according to the latest figures from NHS stats body ISD. 

Speech, language and communication is where most concerns are identified, in a review which looks at social, emotional, behavioural, attention, speech language & communication, gross motor, fine motor, vision and hearing.

Vicky Crichton, Save the Children’s policy manager in Scotland, said: “Children are born learners and the cognitive and language skills children develop in their very early years form the crucial foundations of their future learning. 

“Struggling with these skills in the early years often accounts for the challenges some children face when they get to school, including learning to read well.”

Kirsty is due to begin primary school at the end of this parliamentary session, just as our MSPs are seeking re-election. 

By that time, one child in four in Scotland is assessed as vulnerable, meaning they lack confidence, social skills, emotional maturity, language capability and good physical health. In other words, they have poor wellbeing.

Kirsty’s circumstances mean she is more likely than most to be one of these children.

Alan Sinclair, who founded the Wise Group to help the long-term unemployed back into work, recently published a book, Right From the Start: investing in parents and babies, questioning Scotland’s commitment to its children.

“We need to do a wee bit of truth telling to ourselves, because we think we’re good at these things, that Scotland’s really good at kids, Jock Tamson’s bairns and all this stuff. But actually, we are not,” he tells Holyrood.

Right From the Start argues for investment in the first 1,000 days of life, pointing to the fact the UK lies 16th in UNICEF’s table of child wellbeing.

In his ten-year research for his book, Sinclair spent time in Holland, which tops the UNICEF table of overall child wellbeing along with Norway, Iceland and Finland.

“The Dutch centre of gravity of what is acceptable and what to do with kids is way over the rainbow from where we are,” he says. 

“Behaviour is contagious, and in Holland, people voluntarily work part time more than we do. They share looking after kids. Grandparents are cycling about or getting the train to look after the other bit of the day. It’s definitely not daycare. 

“Their daycare is less than here, yet it’s top of the world for child welfare. That should at least make you stop to think.”

Indeed, a flagship policy of the Scottish Government has expanded free early learning and childcare to include some two-year-olds.  

But will entering formal childcare as a ‘vulnerable two’ really help Kirsty’s development?

The expansion to include two-year-olds in early learning was originally intended to be targeted at looked-after children, but after successful lobbying from Save the Children and others, it now includes other children from challenging circumstances, and Kirsty will probably be eligible.

Another flagship policy is for this free entitlement to be doubled, and this includes the eligible two-year-olds.

But this would mean Kirsty could be moved into formal childcare settings for up to 30 hours a week at two years old.

Like many parents, Caley may well feel uncomfortable about such an arrangement. 

Crichton acknowledges there isn’t strong evidence that doubling the hours will make a difference to outcomes, but if flexible, it could help parents back to work.

“In terms of children’s outcomes, it’s really the quality of the provision that makes the difference. That’s the case for any age group,” she says.

This is because widening the social network will increase both Kirsty and Caley’s social interactions, Crichton points out. 

“Particularly with adults who can help them understand the world, to get their heads round things that are happening, help with their language skills, and so on,” she says.

Caley may not want to send Kirsty away, however. While it is thought a quarter of two-year-olds are eligible, only ten per cent of two-year-olds in Scotland have been registered for this free provision.

According to Crichton, the fact it is not a universal entitlement means some miss out.

“There’s evidence an awful lot of people just don’t know it exists, or if they do know it exists, they don’t know their children are eligible or how to find that out. There’s a good chance that would be the case with Caley,” she says.

“There are definitely concerns about what it would mean about the parent’s work status, either a concern that it might be linked to a requirement to look for work, which isn’t the case, or that if they are not in a position where they want to look for work yet, it might not occur to them that they need childcare.”

There have also been concerns from parents who think their child is too young to enter a nursery setting. 

Given Caley lives in one of Scotland’s most deprived areas, she is more likely to be experiencing mental ill-health and social isolation. Kirsty is her companion, her life.

Sinclair points out that in Finland, Caley would be given her childcare funding for staying at home with Caley.

“Why isn’t that an option here? Why is it that only if I put my child into institutional care I get a subsidy but if I look after it myself, I don’t?” he asks. 

“What kind of perverted world is this? Are we in favour of institutionalising everyone or are we in favour of people having a healthy relationship, especially at the most sensitive period? It’s a policy issue.”

Crichton points to the quality action plan produced by the Scottish Government in October, which commits to ensuring enough adequately-trained staff and childminders are providing the free hours.

“It’s vitally important that as the government expands the numbers of hours, it brings in the additional staff, it opens new nursery settings, that it continues that focus on quality and makes sure it doesn’t dip. Because that is the thing all the evidence points towards which makes a difference for children’s outcomes,” she says.

But the first 1,000 days is as much about the parents as the child, note both Sinclair and Crichton.

In the first months of a child’s life, most parents are more “receptive to help, change and mending your ways. You want to do a good job,” says Sinclair.

“There’s moments for learning throughout your life, and that is one when parents, mothers and fathers learn.”

While there are some examples of third sector organisations, like Parent Network Scotland, WithKids or Scottish Attachment Action working with parents to improve their nurturing skills, Sinclair argues there should be much more investment.

Linda Davidson, a permanence consultant at CELCIS, says services should step up.

“Children’s services need to work closely with families to help them understand their child’s stage of development, which will have been influenced by their [own] early experiences,” she wrote in a blog for the organisation.

“All behaviour is communication and we need to pay significantly more attention to the unique ways that infants express themselves and educate parents, caregivers and professionals to recognise and respond to relationship-based attachment behaviours.”

Crichton says whatever Caley decides, Kirsty will spend most of her time at home, even after she starts formal schooling.

“Particularly for younger children, the home is an important part of their learning environment, so any support we can provide to parents to maximise the impact they have on their child’s learning, and any tools they might be able to use to overcome any confidence issues they have, which is often the case with some parents, and that they feel able to play that role. 

“We know from parents experiencing poverty that the additional stress that puts on the family is massive, and can really inhibit their ability to do this, so it’s vitally important that happens.”

However, the concept of giving parents lessons in parenting could be a political hot potato at a time when even the concept of a single named professional for every child was seen as an intrusion into family life.

“I think society at large has a responsibility to provide for our children. Part of that is making sure that support is available to families to be able to use,” says Crichton.

“Any support Caley receives, through any service, is about empowering her. It is giving her the skills and confidence to be the best parent that she can be, then taking that away and doing what she wants with it.”

Sinclair says: “Where we are just now is ‘hands off. You just parent. You do it and whatever happens, that’s fine. Except if you cross the line and we catch you, we’ll just take your children away from you.’ It’s a totally libertarian position.”

He says the fact the highest murder rate in Scotland is between birth and one year old should give pause for thought.

“Either we intervene and take the children away or if we don’t and they grow up and commit crimes, we spend thousands to take their rights away again.” 

Kirsty’s rights are in the hands of our lawmakers. 

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