How We Grow Up in Scotland

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, March 5th 2011

Scotland we know has its fair share of problems, but we used to tell ourselves a set of comforting stories to disguise this. One was that we were an egalitarian nation. Another was that this was a child friendly society – due to things like Children’s Panels – but fortunately you don’t hear that much anymore.

Susan Deacon, former Labour minister was commissioned by the Scottish Government to look at early life experiences – with ‘Joining the Dots: A Better Start for Scotland’s Children’ the result.

Deacon was always a thoughtful politician and one who as a minister drove civil servants crazy: a major plus in my book! It is not surprising that this report is both positive in what can be done and damning of the current state of affairs. It has a sense of optimism that blighted lives can be improved, while being impatient about the reality of Scotland for many people.

It paints a detailed picture of the state of Scotland’s children. Half of all babies are born to unmarried mothers yet most families are remarkably stable. One quarter of children aged under four have been ‘persistently poor’ since birth. Low-income families are already financially stretched and anxious about the future.

There are many positives in this report. It is a comprehensive review, drawing together expert evidence and shaped by a sense of enlightened Scotland. There are a number of caveats. This is a report which is in a sense ten years late – a decade after Sure Start was rolled out in England and Wales. That was a big, bold, progressive moment of hope for children. And Scotland then choose to say no because the institutional consensus was to spend the money elsewhere.

Next week Sue Palmer, author of ‘Toxic Childhood’ and Alan Sinclair, policy expert, publish a conversation on early years in the book Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination which I have edited with Rosie Ilett. It is a revealing exchange. Sinclair talks of the profound fear and dislike of children which pervades much of Scotland and his ‘sense of bewilderment as to why we place so little value on young people and supporting struggling parents’.

The Effective Pre and Primary School Study surveyed a cross-section of 3,000 children from aged three and it found that by age 11 – the three biggest determinants of literacy and numeracy were the socio-economic status of parents, the educational status of the mother, and most importantly, the home learning environment. Sinclair states that ‘parents who read, sang, played, took their children to the library, drew with them, had the biggest effect’ by age 11.

Poverty matters but it isn’t everything. There are great parents on low incomes and awful parents on astronomic salaries. Many of us growing up in post-war Scotland know this. We grew up in households which were deemed ‘poor’ but which were ‘rich’ in the most important sense: filled with love, warmth, security and care. I recognise that as my Scotland and one many others have experienced. And I know that for too many children such a world is a far off dream.

Adam Ingram, Children’s Minister welcomed the report and talked of the importance of ‘love, play and bedtime stories’. That’s refreshing language to hear a politician talk, but it does underline the diminishing of the vocabulary of much of public life.

This brings me to my reservations about some of the language used in the report – talking of ‘driving change’ and ‘delivering a common sense consensus’. This is the management speak of modern politics which has sucked the life force and passion out of democracy.

Deacon is rightly impatient about how we do policy, but then seems to invoke institutional thinking talking of ‘reducing and rationalising the policy landscape’ and ‘a devolution dependency culture’. It is not ‘rationalising the policy landscape’ which needs to most happen – although we do need a household decluttering – but even more fundamentally how we do policy and nurture ideas and change.

The phrase ‘devolution dependency culture’ puts the responsibility for the state of Scotland on those outside formal politics. All these interest groups and bodies want and expect change to be delivered by the Parliament and politicians.

What this doesn’t reflect is the continuous cycle of all this. The devolution era politicians saw politics and change as about them and putting themselves centrestage, not acknowledging that there were other ways of imagining change. There is in truth an entitlement culture on both sides of the equation which needs to be challenged.

We do need to reflect on the wider world this report is launched into. On the same day Celtic and Rangers thugs – some of them extremely well-paid – showed what little insight they have into their pathetic self-destructive behaviour. Large parts of Scotland – the media, politicians, business – collude in this ghastly, depressing world.

This brings us back to a subject Deacon talks about: namely the role of men in bringing up children. What do we do to encourage men to dare to love, care, empathise and connect more, and be different? And how do we challenge the neanderthals in parts of our society?

We have to develop a learning culture which allows people to try, fail and succeed in public life – to allow us to support children and families better.

Deacon has in this report started a national debate which is long overdue and she has

helpfully shown that many of the things we currently do are barely adequate. This is a help, an opening and a start, but it does feel a little late in the day – given the decade of the devolution public spending bonanza.

We have begun to challenge the comforting stories we have all grown up with which told us that Scotland was this land of inclusiveness, warmth and welcoming – and which has turned out for too many of our citizens to be a land of make believe.

Where the Deacon report succeeds is in mapping the inadequacies of existing practice and making specific recommendations. Where it is most lacking in is the big picture and proposing a ‘common sense consensus’ as the solution. Isn’t that exactly what we have had in Scotland for as long as we can remember, and a huge part of the problem?

We need to change the conversation and philosophy of modern Scotland. Large parts of the civil service and institutional life don’t understand that they are part of the problem and a roadblock to change. That requires supporting things beyond this report: experimentation, nurturing independent spaces and voices, and engaging in deliberative discussion and dialogue. The devolution decade hasn’t aided any of this.

When we talk about change we need to change institutional Scotland, its practices and values. Instead when they talk of wider change they are talking the language of ‘electing a new people’; we need to challenge that basic conceit and arrogance.