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Talking about childhood - four Scottish experts share their thoughts

Talking about childhood - four Scottish experts share their thoughts

The requirement that all children and young people up to the age of 18 have a ‘named person’ from August 2016 has proved controversial. Is the scheme a good idea? Why?

Alison Todd, Chief Executive of Children 1st: Children 1st has long supported the proposals for a named person for every child in Scotland, and a child’s plan for those who need it. The idea came from children and families themselves, who highlighted that they would like a single point of contact and co-ordination between families and public sector agencies. Having over the years seen many reviews into what had gone wrong when a child was harmed, the finding that lack of co-ordination contributed is wearingly familiar. Of course, the proposals have been met with a certain level of anxiety, and I do understand these concerns. But a lot of the concern is due to misinformation. Children’s organisations, the government and public bodies have some work to do to communicate clearly the aims of the policy.

Tam Baillie, Children and Young People’s Commissioner: Yes, I believe the named person will help ensure children get the help they need, when they need it. In a sense, it is a universal early warning system for our children. I have expressed concerns about the potential extent of the information-sharing requirements, though, as we need to make sure professionals share information in a way that both protects children and young people and respects their rights.

Martin Crewe, Director of Barnardo’s Scotland: Yes, it is a good idea as it puts existing good practice into legislation. Health visitors and school guidance teachers are already effective at co-ordinating support to children and families, their named person status will merely reinforce this.

Eileen Prior, Executive Director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council: I don’t believe it is a good idea. A much better idea is the lead professional who will provide co-ordination between the various agencies working with a child. The lead professional focuses on children and families who are in need of support and addresses the issue everyone agrees needs to be addressed, of children falling between the cracks of different agencies and organisations. Named person, in my view, is a red herring which will undermine trust and cause issues between families, schools or other professionals, divert resources from those families most in need, add to professionals’ workload and lead to more families being drawn into the system unnecessarily.

What should the Scottish Government do to improve educational attainment? Do you think the National Improvement Framework and Scottish Attainment Fund will help? Are standardised assessments the answer?

Alison Todd: Measures that aim to improve the chances and opportunities of children are welcome, but at Children 1st we believe that children do best at school when their basic needs are met. Sadly, our family support services work with many children who do not have these things. We see children with no bed to sleep in, poor quality food and sometimes their parents have no electricity to cook with. Good quality teaching makes a huge difference to any child’s ability to learn, but children who are tired, hungry or worried aren’t ready to take those opportunities.

Tam Baillie: International evidence shows that the attainment gap is linked to the levels of inequality in society, so the starting point needs to be measures to reduce inequality, which is a shared responsibility of UK and Scottish Government. My office has produced research which indicates a link between a culture of participation in school and improved attainment levels. Essentially, if we can create a culture within a school where pupils feel part of the decision-making and where their views are valued, then there’s a good chance that attainment can be raised. I do not think standardised assessments are a problem in themselves; it is how they are used that causes concern.

Martin Crewe: For children to achieve in education they need to grow up in safe and nurturing communities, so improvement efforts cannot be restricted to what goes on within the school. Initiatives like the Scottish Attainment Fund can be helpful, particularly if they are focused on family and community support. Standardised assessments on their own will not improve educational attainment.

Eileen Prior: I don’t give up on children or their families. Children – all children - are learning machines from their earliest days and so, in my view, the focus has to be on helping families to support their children’s learning. That means greater emphasis on family learning both in early and school years, plus a serious commitment to co-operation and communication between school and family throughout a child’s time at school. There are some interesting ideas in the National Improvement Framework and some good work coming from the Attainment Fund, but I worry what problem standardised assessment is designed to resolve. To use that old saying, simply weighing the pig repeatedly does not make it fatter!

How can we mitigate against the effects of welfare reform on child wellbeing?

Alison Todd: We need to look at the opportunities we currently have in shaping the future of our social security system. It needs to be rights-based and person-centred so that the best interests of children and young people are fully taken into account and their voices are heard. Our social security system should be fair, simple to engage with and its processes should be easy to understand. It should offer the vulnerable respect and dignity at often challenging and difficult times in their lives, without sanctioning families for changes in health or social circumstances which may affect their ability to fully comply with regulations. I recently attended the launch of the ‘It’s Not a Choice’ report on poverty by the Scottish Youth Parliament and I would urge everyone to read this research.

Tam Baillie: Stop the implementation. All policy initiatives should have a child rights and wellbeing impact assessment before implementation and this has not been conducted on the proposed welfare reforms. I think there is a limit to the level of mitigation Scotland can exert on UK policies. 

Martin Crewe: Welfare reforms are having a huge impact on families in Scotland, but some aspects of the reforms attract more attention than others. Benefit sanctions can be devastating for families and young people and we can help by challenging inappropriate decisions made by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Eileen Prior: I wish I knew the answer to this one. Of one thing I am increasingly sure: the issue of equity (or lack of it) is the central one we must deal with if we are to bridge the attainment gap between our most and least advantaged young people. Welfare reform and austerity – which is seeing services cut rather than enhanced – is exacerbating this gap. There is no logic to me in driving cuts in services and supports in schools, then attempting to backfill the gaps these cuts create.

What should we be doing to improve youth employment in Scotland?

Alison Todd: A young person’s early experiences will have an impact on their ability to enter the job market in later years. It is important that employment opportunities are available to all. But equally important is that children and young people have the best start in life so they can go on to fulfil their potential and be active, valued and rewarded members of society. We know that young people who have been looked after have less favourable outcomes and we must act early to close this gap.

Tam Baillie: There are already initiatives aimed at assisting young people into employment and these are welcome. However, in the longer term, there has to be a closer alignment between labour market requirements and vocation learning opportunities for young people as part of their education.

Martin Crewe: We have a great opportunity with the devolution of the Work Programme to Scotland in 2017. I would like to see a dedicated youth employment programme that recognises the different challenges young people can face. Barnardo’s has extensive experience in this area and we know that with the right support even the most disadvantaged young people can be excellent employees.

Eileen Prior: To really tackle youth employment, young people and their families need to feel that there is really a place for them in the workplace. The truth is that we have a group of young people who feel school is a waste of time because the workplace is a no-go area, either because employment is not a reality in their family and community or because disability serves to exclude them. There is no easy way to tackle that. We can only address it by working with families and young people, employers and support services to build confidence, knowledge and understanding of the various ways they can use their skills and talents – because we all have skills and talents! Developing the Young Workforce – if it is wholeheartedly implemented – addresses many issues, but there are attitudinal ones which are incredibly stubborn.

Do we have enough measures in place to protect children from exploitation and abuse?

Alison Todd: I believe that significant progress is being made in Scotland to ensure that measures are in place to protect children from exploitation and abuse. We have, for example, seen the implementation of awareness-raising measures relating to child sexual exploitation and the development of the National Child Abuse Investigation Unit. However, a number of challenges remain. We need to ensure that our child protection system takes into account the changes in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act so that it is rights based and child centred, and children are supported to talk about abuse in their own time. We must provide training for frontline staff to recognise the signs of trauma and abuse and ensure we have high-quality recovery support services for children and young people. Children 1st provides abuse and trauma recovery services in five local authorities, but we would welcome steps to ensure that there are enough services in every local authority area. We must be sure that we have a system and processes that adapt to ongoing technological changes and advances. Finally, we cannot talk about Scotland being the best place in the world to grow up while we have an outdated law (Section 51 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003) that allows children to be physically assaulted.

Tam Baillie: In general, we have robust child protection systems. However, we do need to increase the capacity to listen to children and young people and include them in the improvement of our systems. I think this would lead to initiatives that are more responsive to the issues of exploitation and abuse. For instance, I am interested in the learning from the development of the Confidential Space initiative which encourages children and young people to control the pace at which they make a disclosure of abuse.

Martin Crewe: Probably not, but there is still considerable uncertainty about the extent and nature of the threat. Barnardo’s is working with Police Scotland to try and improve our frontline response to child sexual exploitation and improve our knowledge of the issue across the country.

Eileen Prior: Child abuse and exploitation are abhorrent to the majority of people, thank God. We therefore have to maintain a balance between protecting children and supporting the sound and wholesome relationships between children and adults which are necessary for children’s wellbeing and development. Without doubt this is a very difficult balance to strike, but it is one we should always be mindful of.

Is there too much emphasis on diet and weight in terms of children’s health? What else should we be looking at? Does children’s mental health get enough attention?

Alison Todd: I think that there is some work to do to ensure that families are fully informed and educated about the benefits of healthy eating and how they can implement changes in a cost-effective way. We also need to ensure that our focus is on viewing the child’s wellbeing as a whole. This means that professionals should be alert to underlying issues behind obesity and changes in diet. In terms of mental health, I believe that we are failing children by not recognising problems early enough. We are subjecting them to long waiting times and not always responding to them appropriately. There must be appropriate services in place to support children and young people with mental health needs.

Tam Baillie: We have significant issues for the health of our children which are interlinked – as well as being influenced by inequality. We rightly focus on education to raise awareness and understanding in the promotion of healthy behaviours. I welcome the increased attention paid to the external factors which influence children’s habits, such as curbs on advertising.

Martin Crewe: The weight of a child is easily measured, but the reasons for this being higher or lower than average are often complex. Some children are reluctant to exercise because they’re fat and not the other way around, so we need to focus on sugar intake in young children, especially hidden sugars in food, and give parents practical, ‘good enough’ nutritional advice. Children’s emotional health is an increasing concern and we have to provide more early support to avoid problems escalating.

Eileen Prior: Probably the most difficult thing for all of us is the conflicting messages we receive all the time about what we should or should not eat, how much exercise we should take and what that exercise should be. It’s very difficult for anyone to make sense of that, and particularly difficult when money is tight. But initiatives like the ‘daily mile’ demonstrate that the measures we take don’t need to be complicated to be effective. I would say that we can’t sensibly draw a line between the different aspects of health – including mental health. They all impact on each other so our focus cannot afford to be on just one element.

Who was the most influential person on you when you were growing up?

Alison Todd: Definitely my parents. I was very lucky to have supportive and empowering parents who put social justice, fairness and love at the heart of my family. My dad was very active in politics and the trade union movement, and whilst that does not mean we always share the same views, it definitely meant that discussions on social issues were always part of my life. From an early age I can remember challenging things that happened at school, a school friend who was belted every week at primary for not having a gym kit – through poverty as opposed to forgetfulness – or the teacher who thought it was OK to give everyone horrible nicknames. I can also remember my dad telling me about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and today, whenever I think  I don’t have the courage to stand up for what is right, I think of Rosa on that bus.

Tam Baillie: Without a doubt, my parents influenced me the most. I was lucky to grow up in a household surrounded by values grounded in fairness and justice, and I think this shapes my view of the world today.

Martin Crewe: My mother.

Eileen Prior: Without doubt, my parents and my extended family. I think that’s the reality for very many children still: their circles may be wider (aided by social media) but the family is still absolutely key.

What’s your most embarrassing childhood memory?

Alison Todd: I was very excited about getting to make the Dream Topping when my parents had guests for dinner. Dream Topping was a new invention, I think I was around 8. I was left with the packet in the kitchen. Roll on a few minutes and I was in the living room in front of all the guests with my hands dripping with liquid, saying: “Mum, I don’t know how to whisk by hand.” The instructions said ‘use electric or hand whisk’!

Tam Baillie: I was in first year at high school. I remember thinking for weeks about how to ask a girl to the school dance and then finally plucking up the courage to ask her, only to get a very public refusal. I wished for the ground to open up and swallow me whole.

Martin Crewe: Aged 12, being told that I pronounced thanks as ‘fanks’.

Eileen Prior: Don’t think there are any huge embarrassments to report – or maybe I have a selective memory!

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