Photo of baby sleeping

No Child Left behind

Marion Macleod – 8th September 2021

Imagine a Scotland where no child is left behind, where every family gets enough help and advice to give their children the best start in life possible and where the life chances of every child in health, education, happiness and wellbeing are fair and equal. Scotland already has the powers and the resources to make this happen – if there is political will to do so. This paper sets out what needs to be done if we are to stand beside the best in the world rather than just outperform the worst. 

We want to create a Scotland where every baby is a wanted and welcome new member of a loving and caring family, where parents and carers know what is best for babies and are supported in providing this by strengthened and expanded specialist community health services. Midwives and health visitors with much smaller caseloads would be able to provide directly, or access readily, the levels and types of support each family needs to bring up their babies well. Professionals would stand alongside parents on every step of the child’s journey, offering practical advice, material assistance and emotional support. 

Families with young children would be raised out of poverty and services to support wellbeing would be widely available in all communities, thus diminishing stress, improving mental health and reducing social isolation. High quality early childhood education and care, free to many and subsidised for all, would be provided from local centres staffed with a range of highly skilled early years professionals, offering integrated day care and early learning as well as parent activities and capacity development and individual and group support. This would be available to all from a child’s first year of life until school entry. 

Every child would be well prepared to be optimistic and aspirational as they start out on life’s journey. Scotland’s children could look forward to a new future of curiosity, wonder and hope, if they are given a fair chance. 

This may sound idealistic or unrealistic, and yet it reflects the systems in place in countries similar to Scotland such as Denmark or Finland. Research carried out by the Scottish Government itself, however, notes the high cost of early years provision in Scotland both in terms of public and parental expenditure compared to several other European countries including Denmark and Sweden, and the relatively low take-up of this provision. The problem is that in Scotland this spend is unfocussed and fragmented. And the costs referred to do not include those associated with ‘failure management’, such as social work interventions and provision of additional educational and health support, nor those of scrutiny. The cost of this failure management is calculated to represent around 40 per cent of Scotland’s local government expenditure2. It means that far too much of Scotland’s spend on child services is absorbed by this failure management where it should be invested in preventing failure and achieving the best outcomes. Acting early to prevent the cost of failure makes a generous system affordable. 

So how would this system work? The service would be part of an all-years National Care Service and Common Weal is working to develop a complete proposal for this at the time of publication. As a first principle the system would be built round the rights of the child and would be explicitly about child health and development (getting parents back to work would be secondary). Its incorporation into a National Care Service will end fragmentation but it would be delivered locally via holistic centres in ever community. Staff would be trained to degree level on the latest science on child development and the importance of attachment to the primary care giver (known to be the single most important aspect of early child development) would be at the heart of everything. 

Long before they become prospective parents, everyone would have had a basic education on the science and practice of being a parent when they were at school, to start to embed the right knowledge and skills. As soon as parents become aware they are going to have a child they will be paired with a healthcare professional who would remain with them as a single point of contact throughout the entire process. Parents will have full access to (and be incentivised to participate in) a complete programme of learning materials and support to help developing the best modern parenting skills. 

From the outset the professional will be tasked with identifying signs that there may be problems with the situation in which the parents find themselves (from problems of poverty to addiction problems). The aim is absolutely not to take an ‘enforcement and compliance’ approach which harms the trust parents have in their child support professional but to be able to make the earliest possible interventions to ensure that the home context supports healthy development and learning. To support expectant parents with chaotic home lives, residential support centres should be created where they can be provided with stability, wellbeing support and training. From start to finish the aim of this system is to keep children with their parents and make sure this can happen without compromising the child’s development. Professionals will be trained to make sure that their engagement with the parents is empathetic – parents in poverty are not poor parents and the engagement will not be driven by stigma or prejudice. 

There should be generous parental leave options (both in time and money) and the importance of a father’s involvement should be central and supported with equitable treatment. When a child is born this should mean a properly-integrated system of financial and social protection and high-incomes this should also mean ensuring there are no essentials they cannot provide. This should be the same system for children with special needs who should not be put into a different system. Throughout the early years the focus should be on strengthening families to try and make sure that taking children into care (for any reason) is a last resort. Stabilising and supporting home life is not only better for child development but costs less in the long term. Where that is not possible the system should emphasise stability and consistency for the child while intensive work is done to stabilise the home environment. 

Scotland should stop thinking in terms of ‘childcare’ (which emphasises getting the parent to work) and instead think of ‘early childhood education and care’. This should be provided on up to a full time basis from the point at which the parental leave entitlement ends. At this age a blend of high-quality family-based care and group care is the right solution, always emphasising attachment and exploration. This should be subsidised and topped up by parents on an ability to pay basis (free for those on low incomes). For this and all other services the public sector must be the primary provider and outsourcing should only happen where it can be shown that it provides the same quality. 

From the age of three the child should move to a kindergarten stage. This should emphasise play, creativity, exploration and social interaction, and should neither be simply a child-minding service nor focussed on formal attainment. Many of the best-performing education systems have children starting formal education later so the kindergarten stage should continue until the child is aged seven. This should be the starting age for primary school. 

The range of benefits of moving to this system would be myriad. Once achieved this could be delivered without substantial spending over and above what is already spent but this would create very significant savings on the many remedial costs the public sector currently faces as a result of early years failure (from remedial learning a school to lower levels of crime and mental health problems in later life). It would improve health performance for children and this would have a lifelong impact, reducing pressure on the NHS. 

It would improve educational performance and quality support services. For families on lower incomes it would bring economic benefits in the immediate and long terms. But above all, it would help to support and develop happy, confident children and stable, loving families.

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