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The Holyrood baby at four: Kirsty in lockdown

Four candles - Image credit: istock

The Holyrood baby at four: Kirsty in lockdown

Kirsty the Holyrood baby is four. Not a baby or a toddler anymore, she is now a little girl and has been increasing her independence over the last year.

At age four she should be developing her fine and gross motor skills through play, such as being able to use a pencil and do jigsaws with large pieces.

She may now be starting to use her language skills to speak in longer and more complex sentences, becoming more confident in telling stories and being able to take part in role play.

Other things that we would expect of Kirsty at age four is that she will have developed a longer attention span, be able to count 10 or more objects, name colours and shapes, recognise some letters and be starting to learn to write her name, as well as having a better understanding of time and daily routines.

But as we know, Kirsty may already be falling behind her peers. Concerns have previously been raised about her communication because she wasn’t talking much at age three.

Kirsty will have a final pre-school child health review with a health visitor over the next year before she turns five and starts school and that will focus on social, communication, behavioural and gross motor skills to see how she is progressing in these areas.

Kirsty is a fictional baby, born to a single mother in one of the most deprived areas in Scotland at the time the current cohort of MSPs took up their seats in parliament and she is the prism through which we can examine how policy over the five-year term of the parliament affects children.

But although Kirsty is fictional, what she is experiencing will be similar to what is happening to real children living in situations like Kirsty’s in Scotland right now.

Claire Telfer, head of Scotland for Save the Children, explains: “Evidence shows that young children living in poverty are twice as likely to have difficulties in their early development and particularly with language and communication. And so Kirsty might not be meeting as many of those milestones that we’ve just talked about as some of her peers.

“And that’s quite consistent in terms of the evidence, which shows that that gap is twice as likely, [so] Kirsty would be twice as likely to have learning difficulties as her peers. And that stays quite consistent from quite a young age unless support is provided.”

Kirsty started nursery this year, which has helped with her development. She is growing a little more independent now she is away from mum Caley for periods of time and she has become very attached to one of her nursery teachers, Mary.

Kirsty has been introduced to a much wider range of toys and activities than she had at home and has been developing her social skills, learning to play with other children and make friends. But now all that has stalled because of coronavirus.

Kirsty and Caley are in lockdown in their small rented flat, which is putting a strain on both of them.

Now instead of story time, playing in the nursery garden, painting and crafts, which Kirsty loves, she is spending the whole day inside a flat, often in front of the TV.

Even Kirsty’s birthday was low key, although Caley did manage a cake and some treats. Living on benefits, Caley can’t afford to buy lots of things for Kirsty and she wouldn’t necessarily know what kind of activities would be good for her development anyway.

“Caley will be doing her best to look at what she can provide and how she can deliver that kind of learning and play at home,” Telfer notes.

“And the most important things really are about setting routines and everyday activities with Kirsty, like arts and crafts and getting involved in cooking and chores, so it’s not about providing expensive items at home … it’s about finding ways to engage in play and activities within everyday activities. And that’s what’s really important for Kirsty at this age.”

But these are things that Caley will find difficult.

Kirsty’s physical health might not be good either. She may not be eating well, as Caley can’t afford to buy healthy food, and she certainly isn’t getting the three hours or more per day of physical activity that is recommended for children under five.

Without a garden, Kirsty can’t play outside by herself and relies on Caley to take her for a walk.

Kirsty could become one of the 22.4 per cent of children in Scotland who are at risk of overweight or obesity by the time they reach primary one.

There is lots of information online about advice and support that could help Caley, such as the Scottish Government’s Parent Club, Children 1st’s Parentline or One Parent Families Scotland’s Lone Parent Helpline, but it’s not certain Caley would know it was there, if indeed she has digital access at all, which many families in her situation do not.

“It’s definitely not a given that just the information being out there means it’s reaching those families,” says Telfer.

“We have to find ways of connecting them up with that information and how they can use it. And a lot of that I think happens through trusted professionals and partners that families are in contact with.”

Increasingly stressed and struggling mentally with the strain of her financial situation as well as having Kirsty in the house all the time and general worries about coronavirus, Caley is less and less able to cope.

She already suffered from poor mental health before COVID-19 and it has now become much worse.

“It will be exacerbated, not only by the isolation, but also by the financial implications and that increase in her outgoings, but with no additional money coming in,” says Liz Nolan, depute director of children’s charity Aberlour.

“So that will have a huge impact on that familial distress within that household where money is a huge issue. And again, the stress of having a child at home 24/7 and having no outlet or anybody to ask for support or to give mum a break.”

This in turn will affect Kirsty, who will be aware of Caley’s mental state.

Nolan says: “We know that with the best will in the world, parental mental illness impacts on children.

“And for Kirsty that watchfulness will be there, worrying about what today is going to be like if mum’s down and if mum’s really, really depressed, and that has to have an impact on Kirsty, and a long-term impact, because these are her formative years.”

The financial situation for families like Caley’s is increasingly dire, and with lockdown many more have now been pushed into poverty, with the associated strain that puts on the family.

Telfer says: “What we’re seeing really clearly is increased financial stress and anxiety from parents.

“Access to food, digital exclusion and the sort of the impacts of mental health problems and loneliness on families are coming through as big issues and it’s building a picture which suggests a frightening level of need for families in poverty, who just simply can’t afford to buy food or pay bills.”

Save the Children is concerned that the number of children in poverty could “soar” as a result of the pandemic.

“We’ve already seen more than 110,000 Scottish households claiming Universal Credit and for those families with children, that’s a huge number of families who might not have experienced poverty before and who are accessing some of these supports for the first time,” says Telfer.

Almost half of single-parent families in the UK are living in poverty and 90 per cent of applications to Aberlour’s urgent assistance fund are from single-parent households. It has seen a 1,400 per cent increase in applications since the coronavirus outbreak.

“I can’t stress enough how desperate the application forms that we’re receiving are,” says Nolan.

“I mean, they are absolutely families in despair, families who have been left with nothing, families who had nothing prior to this who need the basics and need that support, families who were surviving prior to COVID-19 who have now been left with nothing and are waiting five weeks for Universal Credit.”

Nolan explains what the financial situation will be like for Caley: “What she will now be finding is that having Kirsty at home her electricity costs are increasing, her food costs are increasing, and we know that local authorities are providing snacks and school lunches [which Kirsty would have been entitled to if she was in nursery over lunchtime], but we’re finding that families are not actually able to access them.”

Nolan continues: “The other thing is that at the start of lockdown, she wouldn’t have been able to bulk buy, so she will have been left with virtually nothing on the shelves when it started.

“The transport costs, depending on where she lives, there’s the cost of going and buying cheaper from the likes of the bigger supermarkets.

“She’ll probably not be able to do that unless she’s close by to the bigger supermarkets, so she’ll be dependent on the local supermarkets and prices are more expensive. So again, that will be eating into a benefit that’s already saturated because she’s now got increased costs.”

Clothing too will put a strain in the budget because Kirsty will be growing and will need new clothes for the summer, something Aberlour is also getting requests for help with.

What Caley – and Kirsty – really need is some outside support to help her cope with these financial and emotional pressures, but Caley would not meet the threshold for intervention by social services, so she is reliant on  what she can either find herself or that might be recommended by her nursery or health visitor.

“And what help is available depends on where in Scotland Caley lives. It is, Nolan says, “a postcode lottery”.

If Caley is living in Glasgow, for example, she will have access to Aberlour’s family support services, where they are providing doorstep contact with families during COVID-19, as well as food parcels and urgent assistance for basic needs such as a cooker or a bed, but if she lives somewhere else, such support might not be available.

There isn’t a consistent approach to family support across local authorities.

Of even more concern is what the long-term future looks like for families like Kirsty’s.

While there is emergency support available now, with extra funding given by the Scottish Government, it is temporary and demand risks outstripping supply.

Measures such as the Scottish Child Payment, which would have lifted their income, and the increase in free nursery hours, which might have allowed Caley to get a part-time job, have been postponed due to coronavirus.

Last week over 100 organisations and campaigners signed a joint letter to the Scottish Government calling for it to introduce new support of at least £10 a week for all low-income families, because without that, the new normal might look very bleak indeed for families like Kirsty’s.

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