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The Holyrood Baby: How the pandemic and poverty are shaping young lives

The Holyrood Baby: How the pandemic and poverty are shaping young lives

Now in school, baby Kirsty is growing up and facing fresh challenges

Turning six and about to finish primary one, Kirsty the Holyrood baby will tell anyone and everyone who’ll listen that she’s not a baby any more.

She’s growing up and has made new friends in the past year of schooling, and she loves to tell mum Caley stories about what’s happened in class each day.

Listening as they walk home, Caley tries to read between the lines of the things Kirsty is telling her. After two years of the pandemic and the isolation and loss they’ve been through, she worries about her daughter’s development and whether or not she’s behind on her learning. But that’s just one of the things Caley is worrying about.

“Six is a really pivotal age,” says Fiona King of Save the Children. “Unfortunately, things aren’t really looking any brighter for Kirsty this year than they were last year. We know from the families we work with just how hard it is at the moment. There are a tsunami of issues and Kirsty and her mum will be really struggling. The pandemic will have had an impact on Kirsty’s education and ability to grow and develop.”

We’ve been learning more and more about the Holyrood baby and her family since we introduced them in 2016 as a way of measuring progress on the First Minister’s stated aim of making Scotland “the best place” for a child to grow up. Each year has brought new challenges and the pandemic has been tough for the family. 

For so much of it, it was just Kirsty and Caley together, with fewer visits by the girl to her dad Scott, Caley’s ex. Father and daughter are seeing more of each other now, but the tensions between him and Caley’s family remain – her sister still thinks Kirsty would be better off without him.

The death of Kirsty’s beloved grandad Davey from Covid last year was particularly hard and removed a key pillar of support for Caley too. While she’s still close to her mum Jackie, she’s felt her dad’s absence over these 12 months, on top of the depression and anxiety she’d already been struggling with. While the gradual easing of restrictions made things a bit easier, she’s had very little headspace and she has often felt exhausted. She’d like to return to work and earn a wage for her daughter but, without regular childcare, hasn’t been able to find a job that will work around Kirsty’s schooling. The cost-of-living crisis is weighing heavily on her, as it is on so many households. 

It’s coming at a difficult time because now that Kirsty’s turning six, Caley can no longer claim the Scottish Child Payment for her. The Scottish Government has committed to raise the benefit to £25 per week by the end of the year, when it will be rolled out to under-16s in families receiving Universal Credit, but for now Kirsty will lose her eligibility. John Dickie of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) Scotland says this is where the Scottish Child Payment bridging payments come in. Low income means Caley can claim this for her daughter, meaning she’ll receive a £130 payment at the start of the summer, October and Christmas holidays, by which time she should be back on the Scottish Child Payment list, if that rollout goes according to schedule. Once fully extended, it is expected to cover more than 400,000 youngsters and mean an additional £1,300-per-year per eligible child.

While ministers have doubled the Scottish Child Payment to £20 a week from this month – a move benefitting 104,000 children – the same is not true of the bridging cash. Doubling this would be “a straightforward and effective way of providing vital support to families like Kirsty’s”, Dickie says.

“We have huge amounts of responses from parents which highlight really worrying impacts of the cost-of-living rise, including parents having to eat their children’s leftovers so their children can have enough to eat, and losing weight because they’re eating so little,” says Caitlin Logan of One Parent Families Scotland. 

According to updated modelling presented by the Scottish Government, more than 60,000 fewer children could be living in relative poverty next year than compared to 2017 thanks to actions taken in accordance with its Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan. Launching the latest iteration of that plan in March, social justice secretary Shona Robison said the pandemic has “highlighted even more the disproportionate impact major events can have on some parts of society” and reiterated the administration’s commitment to “focus on tackling and reducing poverty and inequality in our society”. As part of that, £53m will go to scaling up the No One Left Behind employment strategy that aims to reach as many as 50,000 parents. There’s also a new £15m transitions fund to support people into work and moves to increase access to childcare. 

It’s the latter point that often means the most to families, according to Julie Cameron of Mental Health Foundation Scotland, who notes Caley’s recent experience of depression and anxiety. “For a happy, healthy child we need a happy, healthy parent,” she says, “and it seems like it’s really important to Caley to get back to work both for income and have support networks in her own right. There’s really good evidence around the benefits of peer supports and access to work.”

“Often the jobs which work best for single parents are part-time, but are typically lower paid and don’t offer the same opportunities to progress,” Logan says. “These are the same issues that contribute to the gender pay gap, so it’s important to consider how the experiences of single mums like Caley are also shaped by structural gender inequality. Single parents tend to be at the sharp end of those inequalities.”

King describes the picture as being “like a Rubik’s cube” because there are so many aspects to work out – hours, pay, flexibility, travel distance, childcare and more.

While the nature of work has changed for those whose office jobs now allow them to log-in from home, analysis by social consultancy Timewise in February found that fewer than one third of 340,000 Scottish posts advertised over several months were said to offer flexible options, including part-time hours and home working – both elements that could help Caley.

Cameron suggests that access to after-school activities at Kirsty’s primary could give Caley some additional flexibility and provide Kirsty the chance to catch-up on social opportunities she missed through the pandemic.

Andrea Bradley of the Educational Institute of Scotland says its members report serious problems in some classrooms due to pupils who are “struggling with socialisation”. “They have difficulties in concentrating for sustained periods, difficulties listening to peers, teachers and support staff, and difficulties in verbally communicating,” she told a recent meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee. “There seems to be less resilience among young people and an increased number of behaviour concerns. 

“What is particularly alarming is the number of very young children who are exhibiting challenging behaviour – very young children who have made the transition from early years provision to primary one. A number of violent incidents have been reported as a result of distressed behaviour in very young children.

“The mental health crisis is growing from what it was pre-pandemic,” she went on. “That will have been, to some extent, the result of bereavement. Thousands of young people will have experienced bereavement over the past two years and we know that a disproportionate number of them are in communities where levels of poverty are high.”

Kirsty thinks about her grandad a lot but she has trouble talking about the confusing feelings she has about his death and anyway, people keep asking her to repeat herself. Caley worries about Kirsty’s diction and an Ofsted report found delays with speech and language progression in her age group in England. Bradley has said there’s a need to provide more access to speech and language therapists in Scotland, while King points out that children from deprived backgrounds already start school “on average 13 months behind their better-off peers”. “It will be challenging for Kirsty and her mum to try and reverse that,” she says.

“There’s been lot of research about the early years impacts of the pandemic being specifically hard on them in terms of their learning and development,” comments Cameron. “They weren’t around other kids to socialise. Caley may well not have in her mind what the milestones are, she might not be aware if Kirsty is meeting these milestones. If you are living in a family that is just getting by, it’s likely you will have been more impacted and that impact will be slightly longer. One-parent families fall into this.”

Cameron points to good practice in some schools offering nurture groups for children who have experienced bereavement. These groups take place within class time, with members given extra help with their learning, and could be of benefit to Kirsty, she says, but notes that teachers must also be supported to deliver this targeted help – a point also made by Bradley. “Teachers have been contending with and trying to juggle a huge amount over the past two years,” she told MSPs. “It seems that there has not been a firm enough grasp of that among decision makers, who have often sought to keep the attainment drive narrative going with all the business-as-usual processes and demands. That way of working is unsustainable. 

“Recovery must include teachers, because they are absolutely critical to the ongoing and longer-term recovery of our children and young people and of our education system in its entirety.”

For Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, recovery will only be real if it’s rights-based. That, he says, means finalising the incoproration of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into Scots law. It is “the single most important thing we can do” to protect kids like Kirsty from policies that hinder rather than help, he says. MSPs passed the UNCRC Bill unanimously in March last year, but the UK Government argued that some provisions were outwith Holyrood’s competency and the Supreme Court agreed. Amendments to keep things within the bounds of the Scotland Act are planned.

“At the start of the pandemic, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child warned of the grave physical and psychological effects of the pandemic on children. Unfortunately, we have seen that come to pass,” says Adamson, who is concerned about a “lack of urgency” from the Scottish Government on achieving the incorporation.

“From the start of the pandemic, we have been calling for a rights-based response, recognising that this is a human rights crisis not just a public health one,” he says.

“Children whose rights were most at risk before the pandemic – like children in poverty, young carers, disabled children, and children in single-parent families or those with care experience – have been disproportionately affected by it. Rights shouldn’t be ignored or delayed in times of crisis, and our recovery from the pandemic must be rights-based. 

“Incorporation means it’ll no longer be good enough to simply pay lip service to children’s rights; they will be fundamental when it comes to policies, legislation and budgets. And there will be much-needed accountability for public bodies who fail to respect, protect and fulfil children’s rights. Put simply, Scotland’s children need incorporation, and they need it now.”

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