Professor Mark Smith – 16th December 2021
The Scottish Government’s National Health and Well-being census is eliciting the biggest customary controversy over the respective roles of parents and the state in bringing up children since the Named Person debacle. But there are also broader issues being played out.
With regard to the Named Person, for instance, I’m prepared to give the Scottish Government the benefit of the doubt in imagining that they were acting with the best intentions, to provide a universal support net for children along the lines of those available in the Scandinavian countries. But when that is done against the wider cultural backdrop of an investigative and punitive child protection system, then I can well understand why parents and those concerned with civil liberties more generally, might protest. The real issue is that if we want to provide Scandinavian style universal support then we need to resource it – and that requires unpalatable political decisions on fiscal policy. But it also requires that we examine attitudes towards the poor and how we police them, which have barely changed since Victorian times. Unless and until we do so, our dalliance with Scandinavian forms of welfare won’t reach beyond baby-boxes.
Similar dynamics can be discerned with regard to the National Health and Well-being census. A look at the Scottish Government’s website makes a reasonable case, based in existing policy and legislation, for gathering data that local authorities might use in developing their children’s services plans (although, given the Government’s previous form, one might be entitled to feel a tad suspicious that this is a centralised initiative reflecting the agendas of interest groups that have captured Scottish Government policy making).
Under the census proposals, local councils are to have all school children complete an online questionnaire about their health and lifestyle. Predictably, the ire of those who oppose this is directed at the questions that focus on sexual experience.
Again, I can see a place for a general and background knowledge of children’s sexual experiences being available to policy makers. As a society, we are not good at dealing with sex, especially when it involves children. It can provoke reactions of embarrassment, discomfort, denial, disgust and outrage but also, I suspect, a level of prurience. At the same time, we imagine our children are prey to all sorts of threats to childhood innocence, especially in an online environment. There are complex issues at stake and there is a case for getting better information to help inform and perhaps bring a sense of perspective to decision-making.
But this isn’t straightforward. Sex is rarely an easy topic of conversation between adults and children – many parents and teachers (and indeed children) baulk at the very prospect. Furthermore, in taking that conversation online, we have no idea about the provenance of any answers children and young people may give. And, once again, the spectre of ‘child protection concerns’ opens up the prospect of this supposedly confidential survey not being confidential at all if some local analyst comes across an answer that might suggest someone might be at risk of harm. But it’s OK because, according to the Government ‘This should not happen very often so it is highly unlikely that anyone will contact children, young people or their families.’ Phew!
But leaving aside such practical and ethical difficulties, there is a wider concern about the focus of the questions being asked. As Nick Kempe, a fellow member of the Common Weal Care Reform Group, pointed out in a recent letter published in the Herald, the census questions are unlikely to result in any actions that are going to better the lives of children or their families. This is because they are basically the wrong kind of questions – they focus on feelings and perception rather than practical help. So the census asks questions about: children’s attitude to school, rather than whether the school has the right resources or facilities; children’s perception of achievement rather than whether the school supports them to develop their academic potential or interests; their physical activity/exercise rather than whether their school has adequate sports facilities; their eating behaviours rather than whether school dinners are any good; their sleep pattern rather than whether they have a bedroom and a bed of their own; their relationships with their parents/carers rather than whether their parents have enough time for them and if not why that is? It goes on to ask questions about how they feel about their general wellbeing, their body image, feelings of discrimination, their resilience and their involvement in decision making. All of this before older children are asked about their use of drugs and their sexual experiences.
All of this data gathering might be argued to be justifiable if there were any prospect of services improving as a result. But there isn’t. Local authorities would be the bodies best placed to fill most of any gaps identified, but the recent budget has further eroded their finances. So, will families be re-housed if the survey throws up that children are sleeping four to a room? Will the gig economy be challenged if it transpires that parents have no time to spend with their kids because they are delivering takeaway meals every hour of the day?
What is really being played out here is a debate that has been prominent in social theory for the past couple of decades. Essentially this has seen the emergence of a new political focus on questions of individual or group recognition, played out in self-realisation and equality, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. In the prevailing neoliberal political and economic climate, these qualities have become separated from and privileged over a concern for redistribution of economic and political resources and a downplaying of social class. Yet social class remains the biggest determinant of inequality and unequal access to resources and to political participation. If one were to look at some of the questions the Scottish Government census asks it isn’t hard to conclude that kids from middle class backgrounds might do differently and for the most part better than those from less advantaged backgrounds.
Social policy that focuses on feelings and perceptions while offering little hope for material improvement betrays a ‘progressive neoliberalism’, calculated to preserve the economic and cultural hegemony of the current world order. It may allow the Scottish Government to appear progressive and ‘down with the kids’ but it takes us nowhere; it is an attempt to influence attitudes rather than taking the practical actions to improve people’s lives. If there is nothing practical to come from it, then asking kids about their sex lives and other aspects of their upbringing might rightly be portrayed as voyeuristic .
Mark Smith is Professor of Social Work at the School of Education and Social Work, University of Dundee and a member of Common Weal’s Care Reform Group