Poor outlook: The Holyrood baby approaches her fourth birthday
The spot by the window where the tree stood in all its glory, with its twinkling lights and beautifully wrapped presents, is now bare and characterless; the cards hanging from the walls, mince pies and festive fizz all but a distant memory.
New toys, games and books that entered the house via Santa’s sack are stacked in a mountainous pile in the corner of the room, the abundance so great that it will take the children until next Christmas to get through them all.
This is the aftermath of Christmas in many homes, but in some, it’s a very different story.
In some households, there may never have been a tree bearing gifts, or an overwhelming collection of shiny new toys.
In some households, Christmas may have been a real struggle, with parents sacrificing whatever they could in order to put a smile on their children’s faces, and a trip to the food bank may have provided the family’s festive meal.
It’s likely that’s the kind of Christmas that Kirsty, the Holyrood baby, would have had.
There’s no question that growing up in poverty undermines children’s life chances, undermines their health, their wellbeing, their educational wellbeing and that starts early on
Kirsty, aged a little over three and a half, is a fictional child, born into one of Scotland’s most deprived communities on the day the current crop of MSPs took their seats in the Scottish Parliament for the new session in 2016.
She represents a conduit through which Holyrood magazine can examine the parliament’s progress in tackling poverty, early intervention and children’s rights, as well as the gap between policy ambition and the reality for children growing up in poverty in Scotland.
“There’s no question that growing up in poverty undermines children’s life chances, undermines their health, their wellbeing, their educational wellbeing and that starts early on,” says John Dickie, Director of Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland.
“Many children growing up in poverty go on to do well in life, but far too many don’t, and the point is that poverty, lack of income, undermines children’s chances and creates a whole heap of barriers.
“That starts from before birth. We know that children born into poverty are more likely to be born with a lower birth weight, more likely to suffer ill-health as infants, more likely to die in infancy, more likely to suffer accidents as toddlers. We know that their early development means that they’re further behind by the time they do start primary school in terms of language skills, so even before they’re born and even before they go to school, their education, their wellbeing, their life chances are being undermined by the very basic fact that their families don’t have the financial resources and the wider resources to give their children these opportunities.”
Kirsty has been entitled to free nursery education since she was two years old – as all “vulnerable twos” are – which would have given her a better chance of improving her language skills and reaching key developmental milestones.
But Kirsty’s mother, Caley, a single mum, didn’t take up the free hours because she didn’t know she was entitled to them.
This is a story replicated across Scotland, with recent figures showing that out of the quarter of two-year-olds who are eligible for free places, only 11 per cent have taken them up.
The figures showed a slight increase, from 5,701 in 2018 to 5,990 last year, but there is still a long way to go before parents like Caley and children like Kirsty – who would benefit most from nursery education from an early age – are aware of the free hours and, crucially, have the support they need to access them.
We know that children from less well-off backgrounds have less access to green space, open space, quality space and that impacts on their health and wellbeing and reinforces a lot of the disadvantage that poverty brings
Claire Telfer, Save the Children’s Head of Scotland, says: “Progress in helping families take up the offer is slower than we’d hoped. With just a one per cent increase, there is much more to do to ensure all two-year-old children growing up in poverty can access this offer in the future.
“The benefits of high quality childcare are numerous – stimulating a child’s brain and helping them to form language, count, build friendships and provide the building blocks for lifelong learning.
“Childcare settings provide rich experiences for children and at an age where the brain is most responsive to absorbing new information and the world is an exciting place to discover.
“The Scottish Government and local authorities should continue to work together to ensure families living on a low income are aware of the offer and understand the benefits. Trusted professionals can play a crucial role in signposting these types of services that support the youngest children. This will enable families to make an informed choice about taking up their place.
“This policy provides a golden opportunity to give all children – and especially those in poverty – the best start in life.”
Although Kirsty missed out on early access to childcare, she started nursery last year when she turned three, like many other Scottish children.
Over the past few months, she will have been able to expand on her social skills and interactions with children her own age, as well as engage with the kind of play-based learning vital to pre-schoolers’ development.
Marguerite Hunter Blair, Chief Executive of Play Scotland, says many children like Kirsty are “impoverished” not only as a result of their financial circumstances, but by the lack of attention they receive from the adults around them.
This is one of the reasons why early years provision is so important for children from deprived backgrounds.
“There’s about 16 different types of play and at that age it’s important that they get exposure to a wide variety so they don’t just get shoved outside and told more outdoor play is good, or only outdoor play – that’s a cop-out,” Hunter Blair explains. “They should be doing role play, drama, rough and tumble, experimenting, using fine motor skills, putting small bits of jigsaws together, being able to use a paintbrush and a pencil, so it’s about getting exposure to all these things through play.”
She points out that the environment where a child is brought up also has a huge role to play in their development and overall wellbeing, something which will certainly be relevant in Kirsty’s case, living in one of Scotland’s most deprived communities.
The thing that comes through very clearly is the stress that not having enough money creates and the damage that does to family relationships
Play Scotland is developing a children and young people’s Place Standard tool for the Scottish Government.
“We’ve been working with a lot of children in Kirsty’s age range about the place where they live and what’s important to them about the places where they live,” explains Hunter Blair. “We know that children from less well-off backgrounds have less access to green space, open space, quality space and that impacts on their health and wellbeing and reinforces a lot of the disadvantage that poverty brings.
“And their voices carry so little weight, so the thing we are really pleased about now is that in the new planning act, children like Kirsty will have to be consulted with about their local place plans. In the new planning act, there’s a new play sufficiency duty that there should be sufficient play and it should be good quality play and accessible. People are only now starting to realise the impact of environment. Yes, you need food on the table and yes, increasing income generation in impoverished households is of huge importance, but actually, where you live and the environment you live in is incredibly important.
“It’s particularly important for children like Kirsty to make sure that they have access to the best environments in Scotland and that their voices are listened to.”
While it seems like a long way off, Caley will have to start thinking about registering her daughter for school towards the end of this year as she will turn five next May and will be due to start school next August.
Hopefully, by this point, she will be made aware of the financial support she will be entitled to when Kirsty starts school to go towards expenses such as uniform costs, which will help make the start of an important new chapter less stressful.
Dickie says: “The thing that comes through very clearly is the stress that not having enough money creates and the damage that does to family relationships. It makes it harder in terms of relationships between adults and being able to provide a stable positive environment when day to day, you’re wondering how you are going to put food on the table and pay the bills. Children pick up on that and feel that.
“It’s also really important to say that parents go to extraordinary lengths to protect their children from the poverty that they are facing as a family and parents go without themselves. There’s lots of evidence to show that parents go without meals, missing out on any luxuries for themselves in order to ensure they are providing for their children to their best possible ability.”
There’s no doubt that Caley is doing just that for Kirsty, but those sacrifices only go so far, and she does not want any outside interference.
Her situation is far from unique – in Scotland, around one in four children are living in poverty.
The Child Poverty (Scotland) Act came into force in November 2017, setting three statutory targets which help focus efforts to tackle and ultimately eradicate child poverty; help monitor progress; and are in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
The targets state that by 2030, less than 10 per cent of children living in Scottish households should be living in relative poverty; less than five per cent should be living in absolute poverty; less than five per cent should be living with a combined low income and material deprivation; and less than five per cent should be living in persistent poverty.
In March 2018 the Scottish Government published Every Child, Every Chance, which set out the “concrete actions” to be taken between then and 2022.
After the first year of the four-year plan, 48 of 58 actions are already in progress or are being delivered, including the Fair Start employment programme and the Best Start financial support for low income families.
But it is the Scottish Child Payment – described as “one of the most progressive policy proposals put forward since devolution” by Communities Secretary Aileen Campbell – which will have one of the most direct impacts on households like Kirsty’s.
Delivered by Social Security Scotland, the new payment will be worth £10 a week per child to eligible families and has the potential to reach around 410,000 children and reduce the relative poverty rate by three percentage points by the time it is fully introduced in 2022.
But while this will lift up to 30,000 children out of poverty, with another Conservative government at Westminster, the future looks increasingly bleak.
Analysis by the Resolution Foundation think tank at the end of last year revealed that child poverty is at risk of rising to a record 60-year high under a Tory government and predicted a rise in the number of children living in relative poverty to 34.5 per cent in 2023-24, up from 29.6 per cent in 2017-18.
It stated the rise in relative poverty expected was largely because of the impact of the two-child limit on support for families, which is mostly still to take effect.
The good news for Caley and Kirsty and all eligible families with children under the age of six is that they will receive the new Scottish Child Payment even earlier than originally promised, with the first benefits due to be made by the end of this year.
But will it be enough to make Christmas 2020 a happier, less stressful one for Kirsty and Caley?