Susan Deacon is a woman who sees very few things in isolation. Though with a career spanning government (she was Scotland’s first ever Minister for Health and Social Care) through to business and academia, this news should perhaps not come as a surprise.
As Early Years Champion for the Scottish Government, Deacon authored ‘Joining Up the Dots’, an influential report on the direction of childcare in Scotland. To some extent, the author’s approach to childcare provision is summed up in the title.
“I have a really deep-seated anxiety over the way we are having the early years debate, because I think we put a disproportionate focus on formal, state provided services. Now obviously, these are hugely important and if we want a more even playing field across the country, then one way to do that is through public provision with local authority funding. But by focusing our efforts on that formal provision, we inadvertently devalue all the other forms of care and nurture, that matters to young children, and that bothers me. It also bothers me that, again inadvertently, we shift the primary responsibility for raising young children to the state and its agencies.”
She continues: “By looking at formal settings, we take our eye off the other types of support that are important for a child and their parents, it strikes me every time I hear people, including senior figures in government, talking about investing in ‘human capital’ and ‘social capital’. Now if these terms mean anything then it means valuing the support we give each other and the relationships that exist between us because these are the ways we develop cohesion in our families and in society. So when I hear people talking about grandparents being an ‘unpaid workforce’, or ‘saving the state money’, it devalues what is, for many people, an important part of their family relationships.”
Does this mean that throwing money at ‘fixing’ childcare is not the answer? Informal ties are, by their nature, outside of state interference, and what does this view mean for the role of education and early years provision?
Deacon is keen not to criticise these services. It is more that she is worried we neglect the value of other ones.
“Where children are being brought up without getting that nurture and stimulation that they need then it is certainly true that access to affordable childcare will help to make a difference for these children disproportionately. They particularly benefit if they are not getting a lot of guidance and encouragement, an introduction to books, to language, singing and counting, then public services can help but that doesn’t mean that the pendulum swings the other way and that is the only way to do it. We have to get back to the fundamentals – addressing what goes on in the home, what we do as parents, and the role of the wider extended family. Now that is not an either/or, because our public services – community and educational support through to the NHS – play a big role in supporting parents and helping them do a good job, but I worry that too much emphasis is put on the notion of childcare. Especially the way it is conducted at the moment, where it is couched in terms of being a provision to allow women to go out to work. I think it is quite wrong.”
She continues: “In our country and in other so-called developed countries – there is an awful tendency to think in boxes, and to do policy in boxes. This is one of the things that has come out of all the work I have done in early years – and it is something we need to shine a light on, and to challenge. If we keep thinking about these interconnected human issues, like what affects us growing up and what makes a difference to us and our relationships, in terms of boxes labelled ‘health’, ‘education’ and ‘the economy’, then we are never going to get there and all we do is spawn different fancy policies and strategies without addressing the human reality.”
This is something that Deacon thinks we could learn from other societies, including those that – by most economic indicators – are less developed than our own.
“One of the other areas I have taken an interest in is reproductive health and this applies everywhere. You can’t have a grown-up conversation about women and raising families and access to work without also thinking about what that means in terms for women and their reproductive health. Now in this country we take it for granted that women will have choices and since the 60s that has largely been the case. But if you look at other parts of the world, very often, due to deep rooted social issues, access to healthcare and contraception, girls – and I say girls because these are young women – they very often don’t have access to these things. Their capacity to engage in education is then limited.”
Deacon points to research from places like the World Bank – and enshrined in the Millennium Development Goals – demonstrating that a country’s economic future is inextricably linked with the level of female participation in education.
“In any country, in any setting, we must not think in boxes, we need to consider all the things that could affect how we develop as human beings, our ability to access education and work. In some countries that are economically much poorer than we are and where education provision is much lower, there is a degree of community and social support, that in our more ‘advanced’ economies we have lost.”
In discussions around childcare, it is natural that women should play a key role. But the need to increase the engagement of men in their children’s lives is obvious, even if it can be difficult to see how to tackle it. To Deacon, the problem is a classic example of how difficult it is for politicians to shape society by using a single lever.
“It is important to recognise that these issues are not black and white, they involve really complicated interactions which all have a bearing. These are nuanced, complex issues relating to the roles of men and women in society and how they have changed. But there is a big issue among men themselves, we should be more receptive to the fact that men are also bringing up children on their own and we need to make sure that any services available to them are welcoming. A lot of dads really feel that environments like mother and toddler groups are not a place that men should be. There is a lot of evidence of how children benefit from having men involved in their care, but there are very few nurseries where you will see a lot of guys working there, which is a shame.”
She continues: “For a lot of wee boys growing up from vulnerable backgrounds, there is not a positive male role model in their lives. And that is compounded by the fact that they don’t have a positive role model at home, but also in education. It could be secondary school before they have a male adult engaged in their learning and development. It is important for boys and girls to have interaction with men and women – a lot of this stuff is not rocket science, but at the same time, there are no simple solutions because the problem has come about through subtle but deep-rooted societal change. But there has to be an active effort to address it.”
One way to address it would be to increase the number of male role models that children are exposed to in early years and education. Would Deacon support using positive discrimination, to force the introduction of men into the education system?
“I think it is much more important to make any occupation feel open, accessible and attractive to men and women. You can look to examples like construction and engineering where women face the same problem and we need to reach out to schools and encourage girls, to show it is not a no-go area. Similarly, when it comes to education or childcare, or nursing, we need to make an active effort with men. If you take medicine, you have had the majority of graduates from medical schools being female for over a decade, so you have seen a quantum shift. Back in the 19th century, women weren’t allowed in, so that is a big change. But we haven’t seen the same shift in nursing. But these issues need mainstream debate or else we will just start thinking that this situation is the norm.”
She continues: “One of the saddest things to happen in my lifetime is that men feel much less comfortable than they once did engaging with children in day-to-day life. That is partly because of the efforts we have in areas of child protection and against child sexual abuse, but one unintended consequence is guys feeling that it is inappropriate, or their motives will be suspect, if they are friendly to a young child. Many men would not feel comfortable approaching a child that is lost in the street, feeling that they need to get a woman to help. This is something we have to push back on because the actions of a small number of bad or sick people should not then be projected onto the rest of the population, because it is damaging.”