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Building blocks: an interview with Scotland's children's commissioner

Building blocks: an interview with Scotland's children's commissioner

Building Lego towers has been something Scotland’s children and young people’s commissioner has really missed this last year.

Normally, Bruce Adamson would be travelling around Scotland, “going, sitting on the floor and playing with the Lego and the playdough” with the children he speaks to. But like much of our lives, his work has had to move to digital environments as public health restrictions prevented all but essential travel.

With a smile, he admits he has still made the excuse to play in lockdown but adds: “It’s harder to do because you’re just building by yourself. Usually a big part of it is the interaction and I’m a bit rubbish, I’ve got no artistic skill at all, so usually if I’m doing it in collaboration with children and young people it’s brilliant, because together we create something that’s meaningful and leads to discussion. If I’m having to do it just by myself… yeah, it’s different.”

Meeting youngsters to talk to them directly about their wants and needs is a big part of the job – and, Adamson says, the best bit.

“Usually I would be doing a lot of that in person, visiting schools, but also going away… going into communities and being part of the spaces where children and young people are able to tell you about what’s happening in their lives and that’s been much, much harder over the last year.”

The reason he places so much emphasis on this part of his job is because he believes children must be involved in the decisions which affect them – something he says there’s been a “real absence” of since the start of the pandemic.

It’s a belief that stems from his own childhood. Growing up in New Zealand, Adamson attended an all-boys state school which “ran almost like a military school”.

He adds: “It was a school of hard knocks. There was not a lot of sympathy to be had at my school, there was a lot of bullying and a tough environment. I don’t look back hugely fondly at high school.”

Pupils were there to receive education rather than participate in it, he explains. In one stark example of this, he recalls the school’s response to a ban on caning. “When I was in fourth form, the second year of high school, the government brought in a law banning physical punishment in schools and my school took legal action to try and get that overturned because they felt that physical punishment was an essential part of education and discipline.

"That gives you a bit of a sense of where they put human rights in terms of the approach to education.”

Quite a journey, then, from growing up in that environment to being children’s commissioner at the time Scotland banned smacking.

“Maybe that’s why I was so passionate about that legislation, in terms of getting rid of the defence of justifiable assault and making sure that assault could never be seen as something that was justifiable, because physical punishment is never appropriate. I think that probably was part of my motivation,” he says.

Families can look very different. There’s an infinite number of ways a family can look and they’re not always blood relatives, as mine weren’t. I think that’s really important

But he “made it through” school and went on to study law at Wellington University. Afterwards, he worked at a community law centre in the city, which he says has shaped his career ever since.

He says: “I was never a hugely high achiever academically, but what I really liked was doing the community-based work and seeing how you could use the law to help people. That’s always been a big part of my work.

“When I came to Scotland in 2002, I became a member of the Children’s Panel and I joined the Scottish Children’s Law Centre, on the board there. A little bit later on I worked for the first children’s commissioner, Kathleen Marshall, as her legal adviser.

“I’ve always been really interested in how you can use the law to effect change. I was very lucky because I arrived in Scotland not long after the beginning of the creation of the Scottish Parliament, just when Scotland was setting up a lot of these rights-base institutions and just trying to figure out how we would build in some of these protections.

“I was able to come in as a founding staff member of the Children’s Commission, and then go over and be a staff member at the Human Rights Commission as well. I was able to go work at the UN and work internationally for a bit. It gave me this really amazing opportunity to be using the law and using rights to make a difference. That’s what’s always driven me.”

Now Adamson is four years into his six-year term as commissioner and while his experiences have undeniably shaped his views, he’s also adamant that adults must avoid assuming they know what’s best for children.

He says: “One of the risks sometimes is we kind of cast our minds back – and for me that’s a long time ago – and the world’s a different place now. That’s why it’s so important that children’s participation is at the heart of decision making because any assumptions that we make based on our own experiences are generally going to be wrong because the world’s changed so much.

“Particularly when you get to my age in my mid-40s, it’s a very long time since I was a child. There’s a risk of rose-tinted glasses. I grew up in rural New Zealand. In my memory the sun was always shining and it was all wonderful, but I know that not to be true.”

One of the fundamentals he has carried with him is how important being surrounded by a loving family is for the life chances of a young person. He says: “What was really important to me growing up was that I came from a large family, there was a lot of support around, and that was really important to me even though family go through difficult times. There was still that support of family structure around.

“That’s always informed part of my approach and it’s at the heart of the UN Convention [on the Rights of the Child] as well, the need to make sure that around children and young people are supportive families.

“Families can look very different. There’s an infinite number of ways a family can look and they’re not always blood relatives, as mine weren’t. I think that’s really important, that around children we build strong supportive networks.”

Making sure every child has “a family environment of happiness, love and understanding” has been a major part of his work. Indeed, one benefit of lockdown has been strengthening bonds between families.

He explains: “Lots of children have said they’ve enjoyed spending more time with their families, the fact that their parents haven’t been rushing off to work or travelling and things.

"That’s actually had some real positives for many children, for family life, for getting to know their parents and their siblings in a bit of a different way. Many children have talked about that as a positive thing, as well as all of the negatives that we all get frustrated with, with our families.”

But naturally Adamson is also worried about the negative impact of school closures and restrictions on socialising. He says there are “big concerns about the academic achievement, but probably bigger concerns around the mental health impact”.

When we spoke, children over 12 were under the same restrictions as adults. “The impact of that on older children’s development is really concerning,” he said. But since then restrictions have eased slightly and now under 17s can meet with more than one other household at a time, though overall numbers are still restricted. There has also been a return to schooling from mid-April.

He says: “We need to be really focused on seeing children in a more holistic way. Of course it’s important they’re able to progress in their academic and vocational aspirations, and it’s really important that we build in to make sure that they develop to their fullest potential, but that’s much more than passing exams, it’s much more than getting to the next level of your education.”

And that’s without considering how different cohorts of kids have been affected. He adds: “It’s been an absolutely awful experience over the last year for everyone… and there’s been a disproportionate effect on those children who were already more at risk of their rights being abused, particularly children living in poverty. That’s a huge problem in Scotland, it was before the pandemic, and it’s been made worse. Disabled children and other children with additional support needs, children who were already needing support with their mental health and that’s increased massively, [and] more children are facing bereavement.”

The solution, he argues, is to ensure every child has in place a plan to make sure they get all the support the need, including from specialist services, in the months and years ahead.

In the short-term, that means giving more consideration to children as we reopen society. While school return has been a priority for government, Adamson says more thought should be given to other parts of children’s lives, including sports clubs and after-school activities.

Part of the new landscape will be the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) Bill, one of the last pieces of legislation passed by Holyrood before dissolution. Adamson says this legislation has been a “lifetime’s work” of which he is “amazingly proud and excited”.

He says: “The fact that it’ll come into effect six months after Royal Assent means that’s really going to focus minds in a way that we haven’t had before because of the direct enforceability of rights later this year on all public bodies. That I think is absolutely key and why we’ve been fighting for it for so long is that this is really going to change the way in which Scotland works in terms of children’s rights.”

Even with this in place, though, it will be no small task ensuring a generation of children do not suffer lifelong impacts of the global pandemic. Is Adamson optimistic?

“I’m always optimistic. I know I sometimes come across as being quite critical, because a big part of my job is holding those in power to account, but I’m a natural optimist.

"I think you can’t help but be an optimist when your job is spending time with children and young people, who will very strongly and articulately, in many forms of communication, tell you what’s going wrong with the world, but they’re also exceptionally good at coming up with solutions and being positive and seeing the best in people.”

He adds: “The build back better has got to be building forward, building for the future. The status quo as it was isn’t acceptable and we need to look to how we can make decisions now that are going to have really positive outcomes for the future.”

And perhaps before long, Adamson will be able to help that building back better – with Lego.

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