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The Holyrood baby at five: A childhood scarred by poverty

Child poverty was on the rise even before the pandemic Image: Shutterstock

The Holyrood baby at five: A childhood scarred by poverty

The rain is beating relentlessly against the window. It may be spring, but there’s little sign of it out there, where the late morning sky is slate grey.

Here inside, the blare of children’s TV overlays the sound of rain. Illuminated in its weak light is a small child, but she’s not watching. She’s lying on the floor thumping her feet against the wall. 

Hungry and bored, she knows she’ll have to wait until Mummy gets up before she’ll be fed.  

The preschooler feels a funny sick feeling in her tummy. She hopes Mummy is OK. Granda was in bed too and then he went to hospital and then he died. 

Getting up, she goes next door and crawls under the covers with her mummy. Time for a hug.

Kirsty the Holyrood baby is nearly five. She is a fictional child from a deprived area of Scotland, born on the day the 2016 crop of MSPs took their seats.

Kirsty lives with her mother, Caley, who survives on benefits and struggles with depression and anxiety. 

Kirsty’s story closely resembles the lives of thousands of real-life disadvantaged children in Scotland and, over the course of this parliament, charting Kirsty’s progress has allowed us to consider how effective the promises politicians made in 2016 to improve the lives of children have actually been.

A few months before that election, Nicola Sturgeon said she was “absolutely committed to making Scotland the best place to grow up”.

Five years later, she goes into this election still reading from the same press release, insisting she is “more determined than ever to make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up”. 

There has been progress on policy, and the small matter of coronavirus, but the hard truth is that child poverty was rising in Scotland even before the pandemic. 

More than a quarter of Scotland’s children are now growing up in relative poverty.

Lockdown has been exceptionally tough for Kirsty and Caley, but the good news is that Kirsty is finally back at nursery during the week.

After going through two extended periods at home, where her daily routine had broken down and social contact was severely limited, she desperately needed stimulation and the regular company of other children, particularly given that she will soon be taking the next big step in her life by starting school. 

But she will do so at a disadvantage to many other children. Kirsty has not yet met some of the developmental milestones associated with a child of her age, a result of having experienced so much poverty in her short life.

And she is also struggling to come to terms with a profound recent shock: the death of her grandad Davey as a result of COVID.

Caley’s dad, Davey, was a steady and reassuring presence in his granddaughter’s life. He didn’t say much, but Kirsty liked that he smiled a lot. He and Granny would take Kirsty to the park when Caley wasn’t feeling good. Kirsty loved him and he made her feel safe.

Davey fell ill with COVID just before Christmas and by New Year’s Day was in hospital. He died 12 days later. 

Davey’s story, sadly, is not unusual in Caley’s town. Death rates have been much higher in areas of deprivation than in affluent communities and men have been more likely than women to succumb to the virus.

Caley and Kirsty were able to visit Davey in hospital once, but Kirsty, at four, nearly five, is struggling to comprehend the finality of death and keeps asking her mother questions like whether Granda can see or hear, even though his funeral was months ago. 

Davey’s death could hardly have come at a worse time for Caley. The pandemic has made her even more socially isolated and she has faced added stress over money due to the increased costs of heating, electricity and food while Kirsty was at home all the time.

Up until recently, she was in charge of her daughter 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which left her no headspace. 

Lisa McCulloch, a senior practitioner and team leader for Barnardo’s in Aberdeen, says her impression is that the second lockdown has been harder for many families in Scotland than the first.

Partly this is because children have been stuck indoors more than last time because of the weather. “Some children are physically harming themselves by doing things like banging their heads off the sofa. They are frustrated,” she says. 

At least this time round the parks are open and Kirsty can play with other children – weather allowing. The deep snow was an unexpected novelty. Caley used part of her £100 winter hardship payment (available to families eligible free school meals) to buy Kirsty a winter jacket.

But for Caley, the grief of losing her dad has overwhelmed her. She is in a bubble with her mother, Jackie, so at least Kirsty can hug her granny sometimes, but Caley feels bad that she can’t give more support to Jackie, who isn’t in good health. Sometimes, like today, Caley feels so depressed she struggles to get out of bed. 

The loss of Davey itself and the impact it has had on Caley are both affecting Kirsty. She misses her grandad deeply.

“Often a grandparent is absolutely crucial to a child and losing them could be akin to losing a parent,” says Richard Stafford, director of development for Child Bereavement UK in Scotland.

“They might play a childcare role; often they play a stabilising role where there’s a household with problems.”

A bereaved child can become more clingy, fearing that if something has happened to one person they love then it could happen to another.

Grief on top of her pre-existing mental illness is also making it hard for Caley to focus on Kirsty, so the four-year-old feels more anxious and lonely.

Having fun and playing can be a welcome escape, but lockdown hasn’t helped.

“The normality of routine and going to nursery allows a child to get away from intense emotion at home at a time of bereavement, but that has gone out the window during lockdown,” says Stafford.

So starting back at nursery has been great for Kirsty. She is thrilled to see her keyworker Mary again, with whom she had formed a strong attachment. Now she and Mary draw pictures together and sometimes Kirsty talks about her grandad.

At Kirsty’s age, children are making the transition from being toddlers to being ‘big kids’. They are typically learning more self-control, sitting still for longer and are learning about regulating their emotions.

They are keen to spend time with other children and are usually less distressed at being separated from their parents.

This is the age at which children are learning the difference between right and wrong, and starting to be able to resolve minor conflicts with their friends. Their communication skills are improving as they explore new words and concepts.

They are also honing their gross motor skills by hopping, skipping, climbing and jumping.
Having the opportunity to play is essential to all of this development.

“Every child develops at their own pace,” says Claire Telfer, head of Scotland for Save the Children.

“It’s not inevitable that Kirsty would miss these milestones. But poverty means it’s harder to reach them.”

Health and development checks at five show a gap between children who grow up in poverty and their more affluent peers across all indicators including physical, cognitive and social development, but it is most pronounced with communication and language skills.

This is a matter of serious concern, given that language is the foundation for future learning and development.

“There’s a difference in experiencing poverty for a short and a long period,” says Telfer. “We talk about one in four children growing up in poverty but thankfully most children experience it for short periods or are cycling in and out of it. For children who experience it persistently, the outcomes will be worse.”

A lack of resources and parental stress both impact the wee family. Caley doesn’t have a garden or any spare cash. And she has been under terrific strain.

“Caley will be trying really hard to do her best for Kirsty, but if you’re worrying about paying your electricity bill, then it becomes harder to find the motivation to focus on your child and play,” says Telfer. 

One development during the pandemic has been the increased support available for families like Kirsty’s. 

The need is great. In 2018-19, 230,000 children (23 per cent) were living in relative poverty, but by the following year – even before the pandemic – that had risen to 260,000 (26 per cent). 
Since then, COVID has forced still more families into hardship. 

Telfer describes the help provided to families as “really positive”, pointing to the Scottish Government’s winter hardship payments and £100 spring hardship payments. The long-awaited Scottish Child Payment, worth £10 a week and initially available for parents like Caley with children aged six and under, began in March.

Nicola Sturgeon promises to double the Scottish Child Payment if the SNP are re-elected (a pledge also made by the other four main parties in Scotland).

The £20 uplift in Universal Credit introduced when the pandemic began, meanwhile, was continued for another six months in March’s UK budget.

The Scottish Government’s wellbeing fund was set up early in the pandemic to provide grants to households in need, to be distributed by local authorities and voluntary organisations, and charities have also used their own funds.

Charities like Barnardo’s, Save the Children, Aberlour and One Parent Families Scotland have been working tirelessly to reach families in need.

Caley and Kirsty are among 1,500 families to have received a grant of up to £350 from Save the Children, which Caley has used to buy food, a sledge for Kirsty and a warm coat for herself.

The grant includes a ‘bedtime pack’ of early learning resources like books and toys.

Save the Children reports that the grant has made a huge difference to families.

One mother, Sarah, from Edinburgh, says: “I remember feeling like a complete failure as a mum because I didn’t have enough money to buy both food and clothes for my daughter. So I’m cutting the feet off her sleepsuits so she’d have a romper. Thanks to the emergency grants, I can go out and get food like a normal person, because you feel you’ve been stripped of that.” 


But can Caley and Sarah depend on the £20 benefit uplift continuing for good? What will happen to emergency grant funds once the pandemic is over? 

And after this most challenging year, will Kirsty have the chance to thrive or will the disadvantages she has already faced in life limit her capacity to take advantage of opportunities in future?

Her story demonstrates that the relationship between poverty and child development is complex and that government intervention can help in a very direct way.

But it also shows that Scotland is very far from being “the best place to grow up”, as proclaimed by the SNP five years ago.

A bleak future for Kirsty is by no means inevitable, but she and her mother will need a lot more sustained government support if they are ever to escape the poverty trap, and that is now up to the new intake of MSPs. 

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