Twelve years of devolution have largely failed Scotland’s children. In twelve years of plenty, with record billions at our disposal, we have conspired to create a Scotland in which educational attainment has flatlined and health has deteriorated. Our children are now less well fed and less well off; they are more vulnerable, more abused and more neglected; violence and alcohol blight their lives daily. Our need and greed trumps theirs every time, from our inability to parent them sufficiently well to our work getting the best of us, from our helicopter parenting to turning a blind eye to those who need our protection. We deny them the little things that make the difference – healthy meals, a book at bedtime, safe places to play – and also the big things – a future secure from debt, both national and personal; an ecologically balanced world where species flourish not founder; a happy, healthy, safe and secure childhood that will enable them to grow into successful adults.
It doesn’t have to be like this. And promisingly, there are signs that the political parties are beginning to agree. If I was in cynical mode, I’d suggest that the recent campaign focus on children, families and early years has more to do securing the vote of the “squeezed middle” in this election. But I’m not. I have to – want to – believe that finally, albeit stutteringly, politicians are getting it.
To reform public services simply to save money is to miss the point. There must be a purpose to such activity. So how about this: to ensure that all our children have the best start in life, enabling future generations to realise their potential and turn Scotland into the power house nation it could so easily be.
Forget the current generation. We’re a lost cause. Our unhealthy lifestyles, working habits, consumerist obsessions and environmental ignorance mean we are the problem, not the solution. We want it bigger and shinier, and we don’t want to have to work or change to get it. The mantra is more and faster please. Trying to get us to shift our values and attitudes, to save us from ourselves, is pointless. We are the ones who will work until we drop to pay for all our madness and it’s time we just accepted our fate. And at the same time, agree that it really can be better for our children and children’s children.
The same as before simply will not do. Which is why we need Curriculum for Excellence to work: if that means sweeping away the vested interests of teachers whose intransigence will cause it to fail, then so be it. Learning skills rather than subjects, accumulating knowledge through action rather than cramming, developing confidence through practising, growing awareness of everything around them by using it in daily activities – this is education in its fullest sense. But we must also go further and fully integrate educational concepts and theories which venture beyond the statist approach to education, and particularly pre-school education, to create real Kindergartens and child-centred nurseries.
It is now a commonplace that by the time they start school, it is too late for some. The theories around attachment and baby and child development, and the impact of disassociation and chaotic parenting are now a given. We now know the outcomes for children denied the best start in life – substance misuse, crime, societal and economic disengagement, emotional disfunction and violence. To change, we must avow to end our love affair with alcohol and create a whole population shift that eschews violence in all its forms, verbal, emotional, physical and sexual. We must invest in parenting – it is after all, the most important job a person will ever do. That means enabling and cajoling fathers to be more involved in the nurture of their children, while changing the culture that demotes women’s status and income when they become mothers. We need to create real space in our lives for the role of aunt, uncle, cousin and grandparent, to celebrate the value of these relationships for children’s well being. Targeted activity to ensure the most vulnerable children are not allowed to fail is crucial, as is creating seamless – by right, not fight – supports for families with disabled children so they can be as ordinary as the rest of us. But the best outcomes are achieved by universal investment and action. We must become a truly child-friendly and centred society so that this generation grows up to be different, with more gentle, less strident values, whose ambitions are less material and more intangible.
So yes, we need that extra £20 million invested in health visitors, and better training for teachers in identifying and supporting children’s additional needs (thank you, Scottish Conservatives); and we need the £250 million Early Intervention Revolution fund to fund family intervention projects, encourage breastfeeding and develop parenting skills (thank you Scottish Liberal Democrats); and we need a bill that creates a statutory entitlement to early years measures and support for expectant parents, as well as more family centres (thank you, Scottish Labour); and we need a £50 million Sure Start Fund that will help pre-school children in our most deprived communities, while developing a children’s centre model to provide everything that families need under one roof (thank you Scottish National Party).
But we need it all and more. All of it not some of it. Investing in early years shouldn’t involve finding extra money or be seen as an added-on policy stream. It should be core to everything we do, and we need to start shifting money from just in time, crisis spending into early, preventative spending. The BBC Scotland poll shows how far the public has to travel in order to get this but it requires politicians to lead the debate. Down with inputs, up with outcomes!
We must agree our common purpose from this election onwards. To stop asking what’s in it for us and start determining what we can do for them. We can bequeath a better future for our children, but only if we put them at the heart of everything we do.