What the SNP's programme for government looks like for Scotland's children

Written by Tom Freeman on 6 June 2016 in Inside Politics

Harsh realities meet our fictional Holyrood baby as the Scottish Government sets out its blueprint for the next five years

In the introduction to Kirsty, our fictional Holyrood baby, we pointed out that she is lucky.

Despite her odds and circumstances, Kirsty was born a healthy weight. Despite the lack of folic acid in her mother Caley’s diet, she has been born without birth defects like spina bifida.

Perhaps the luckiest aspect of all is that Kirsty was born to a mother who loves her and is determined that she will thrive.


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Last week’s verdict on the tragic death of two-year-old Liam Fee shows that the desire for parents to give their children any kind of a life cannot be taken for granted. Mother Rachel Fee and her partner Nyomi were convicted of assaulting and killing their young child following a catalogue of abuse.

The pathologist told the court the toddler would have been in excruciating pain from his injuries before he died. “He would have been crying, distressed and upset,” he said.

However exceptional the case, social services had been alerted to the Fees several times, but had failed to make the much needed intervention.

Antithetically, responses to the arrival of lucky Kirsty were numerous and varied. Many took to Twitter to post pictures of themselves as a baby. We received many congratulations, concern for her mother Caley, enquiries about her father and the rest of the immediate family. 

The new children and early years minister Mark McDonald tweeted a picture from his Scottish parliamentary office of our Kirsty poster on his wall. “An important reminder of the purpose for which I’m here,” he said.

Looking at the poster, the more eagle-eyed spotted the immediate danger Kirsty was in, even putting the statistics on her life chances to one side. Because Kirsty is sleeping on her front, her likelihood of cot death is higher. 

Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, tweeted Kirsty’s future could be improved by preventative investment in her mum and dad. Eighty per cent of NHS spend is in the last two years of life, she pointed out. 

“If only we could predict which is going to be the last two years,” responded former Labour MSP Dr Richard Simpson.

New international research was published last week which showed smoking rates among both parents affects a child’s likelihood of getting asthma. Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) Scotland welcomed the news Kirsty’s mum Caley gave up cigarettes early in her pregnancy, but pointed out incidences of lung cancer in communities like the one Kirsty has been born into remain 80 per cent higher.

However, the year of her birth, ASH Scotland pointed out, could be significant. “Good timing! #HolyroodBaby turns 18 in 2034 – the year when the Scottish Government has set a target for a tobacco-free generation,” the campaign tweeted. 

Women 50:50, the campaign for equal representation for women in Scottish politics, pointed out Kirsty is already held back by her sex.

“Kirsty will be paid on average 12 per cent less than male equivalent, and has a 1 in 4 chance of experiencing gendered violence,” it tweeted.

A 50:50 gender balance on public boards is one of a number of pieces of early legislation First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she will bring forward in her programme for government.

Whether this move will help close the pay gap by the time Kirsty is entering the workforce is debateable, but other proposed legislation might. 

As well as accepting all the recommendations of last term’s independent poverty adviser, Naomi Eisenstadt, Sturgeon has committed to appointing a new one.

And, perhaps an indication of the fact the SNP is now a minority government, Sturgeon credited her opponents with some of the ideas in health delivery.

A new ten-year strategy for mental health will be backed to the tune of £150m. “Our action will include the recruitment of more mental health link workers in local communities, where they will work alongside GPs and other health professionals. This work will be led by a new, dedicated minister for mental health – a key ask of the Liberal Democrat manifesto,” said Sturgeon.

The shift to community primary care hubs will include an “enhanced” role for pharmacists, and “we will examine a proposal in the Labour manifesto to extend the minor ailments service to make it a universal service available in all pharmacies,” she said.

As for the much talked about Scandinavian-style baby box, it will be too late for Kirsty, but Sturgeon says the scheme will be in place “within a year”, alongside other initiatives for the early years. 

“We will also use new social security powers to introduce a maternity and early years allowance to give financial support to low income parents – initially, when a child is born, then when the child starts nursery and again when they start school. This will be targeted help to reduce inequality at key stages of a young life,” she said.

This will be boosted by universal vitamins in pregnancy and 500 more health visitors over the next two years, the First Minister promised.

What Kirsty will experience, however, is the success or otherwise of the Scottish Government’s expansion of childcare. 

“There is no doubt whatsoever that the expansion of childcare will be our most important infrastructure project of this parliament – it will help parents, particularly mothers, into work and it will be a transformational investment in the life chances of our children,” said Sturgeon.

But will Kirsty be identified as a vulnerable two-year-old and therefore eligible for free childcare early? And would spending less time with Caley at such a young age actually do more harm than good to Kirsty’s brain development?

Doubling the hours of free nursery is not guaranteed to lead to better education outcomes either. Before the election, Sue Palmer, who chairs a campaign to make formal schooling start at age seven, told Holyrood the proposed expansion will lead to a continuation of a “hotchpotch” system designed to look after the children of working parents rather than attending to their educational needs.

“We should establish a ring-fenced kindergarten stage for children from three to seven, based on the Nordic model. 

“Unless we do, we’ll continue to struggle with a widening attainment gap, an increasing number of developmental conditions and behavioural problems, and a rising tide of child and adolescent mental health problems,” she said.

And if the Scottish Government needed reminding about the challenges facing its promise to close the attainment gap, recent weeks have brought some sobering examples.

A report for the Sutton Trust by University of Edinburgh researchers revealed Scottish students from the most privileged areas remain four times as likely to go to university as those from the most deprived areas. More embarrassingly for the SNP, the equivalent figure is three times in Wales and Northern Ireland, and in England only 2.4 times as likely.

Any improvements in higher education participation have actually occurred in Scotland’s colleges, according to the report. 

The Scottish Government’s totemic policy of free university tuition has done little or nothing to widen access to university, it would seem, and the report’s authors, Sheila Riddell, Lucy Hunter Blackburn, Gitit Kadar-Satat and Elisabet Weedon, called for a more “nuanced approach” to access.

Last week the figures were compounded by the latest report from the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy which showed further decline in the attainment of younger pupils in maths and arithmetic. 

The figures, which had been due in April but delayed until after the election, come from a survey of a small voluntary sample and therefore could be unreliable. Nevertheless, it is the only measure the Scottish Government uses.

Worryingly, the sharpest decline was at the youngest level, with only 66 per cent of pupils in primary four performing well or very well at numeracy in 2015, down from 69 per cent in 2013 and 76 per cent in 2011.

Among the younger groups, the gap in performance between better off pupils and those in the most deprived areas is also widening, according to the survey. With this gap widening in schools, free university tuition looks likely to benefit those at the other end of the economic scale than Kirsty.

By S2, only 25 per cent of pupils from the most deprived communities are performing well or very well in numeracy, compared with 53 per cent from the least deprived areas.

In his new role as Education Secretary, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the figures showed the need for the government’s National Improvement Framework, including standardised testing. Simply improving the data won’t close the gap, however.

According to Larry Flanagan, general secretary of teaching union the EIS, the greatest barrier to closing the attainment gap is still poverty.

“Austerity-driven cuts, which have deepened the levels of child poverty in Scotland, have created even greater barriers to educational achievement for too many of our young people. The survey underlines how poverty continues to be one of the most significant obstacles to pupils performing well,” he said. 

Unlike many of the decisions facing Caley, her poverty is not a choice. 

Apart from anything else, the introduction of Kirsty certainly created discussion. It is how that discussion is turned into meaningful action which will dictate her journey through the next five years. And for those children like Liam Fee whose life was cut short so tragically, it is about ensuring they have any chance at all.

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