Taking stock, looking forward: next steps for children’s policy in Scotland

As part of a two part blog series looking forward to children and family policy and practice in Scotland, Children 1st’s Chief Executive Mary Glasgow begins by considering the importance of providing clarity for families about what support is available for them and argues that we must be more mindful of family life when developing policy.

At Children 1st we are in the process of updating our IT system and in doing so old documents have been resurfacing, reminding us both of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go since Children 1st began working in 1884. It’s been fifty-five years since the launch of the Kilbrandon Report, ten years since the inception of the Early Years Framework and eight since the publication of the Christie Commission’s recommendations.

We have made some important strides forward in policy terms over the last few years - the ground-breaking domestic abuse legislation, provisions for care experienced children, the removal of the legal defence of justifiable assault. And on the horizon is the potential to make significant changes to the civil justice system so that children’s voices are heard more clearly and taken into account, the incorporation of the UNCRC into Scots Law, which Children 1st has long championed, and the opportunity to pilot a groundbreaking Barnahus-type model of support for children who have experienced crime.

But it still feels as though we have a long way to go. I continue to believe that providing consistent practical and emotional support to those children and families who need it is the best way to keep families strong and children, wherever possible, where they belong: at home. Parents and carers often tell us that they find themselves navigating through complex bureaucratic systems and processes which are confusing, disconnected and not always easy to get a hold of. We know that strong, trusting relationships between parents, children and professionals is the best way for children to have their needs fully understood and met. We have been told this time and time again, and yet we are in a climate where resources are stretched and families are unable to develop the relationships we know will make a difference.

This is why we made no secret of the fact that Children 1st were strong supporters of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 and the provisions relating to the named person and the child’s plan. Having heard many times over the decades from the children and families we work alongside that early and easily accessible help and support is crucial to prevent families from reaching a point of crisis and how bewildering the support and service system can be, we welcomed the idea of a single point of contact through which children’s support needs can be coordinated—and we still do.

The Deputy First Minister’s announcement last month that these parts of the Act will be repealed has made all of us at Children 1st consider what comes next for children and family policy and practice in Scotland. I believe that it is important that we take some time to reflect - but not dwell - on what happened and what lessons can be learned going forward. There is now an opportunity to come together to consider what the future looks like within the GIRFEC framework and to reconcile the views of those who both supported and opposed the changes that the Government were proposing in order to consider what is best for children in Scotland. Because undoubtedly we all want the same thing: to support families and improve outcomes for children.

I am looking forward to being part of the ongoing review of the GIRFEC Practice Guidance and to considering how to strengthen GIRFEC going forward, transferring the experience and knowledge we have gained over the last few years, the passion, debates and discussions, into invigorated and energised policy making, emboldened by the work that is going on to embed children’s rights into our domestic law.

I think the focus should now be on making sure that children and families and professionals clearly understand what services are available for them and how these can be accessed. And clarity is needed over how information can and should be stored, shared and talked about. The law on this is clear and we must focus on ensuring that practice is clear and consistently applied across Scotland.

And crucially, the support available to families must be fully resourced. We must invest in order to ensure we have the capacity to meet our ambitious aims for children and families. We cannot signpost children and families to services that do not exist or where funding is fragile and temporary. We do a disservice to families when we do not give them the time or the opportunity to develop strong and trusting relationships with professionals so that they can work together as a team to develop practical and lasting solutions to any challenges they face.

The message from those worried about the impact of the named person and the child’s plan is clear - we must not lose sight of the family when we are talking about children. My view is that in policy and practice we do need to be more mindful that children live in families and communities, and they have the right to a safe and secure family life with all the supports available to that family in order to protect that right, while continuing to put children and their rights at the centre of our care and decision making.

Fortunately, we know what families say supports them best - strong, lasting and genuine relationships, being in the driving seat of the changes they want to make, developing strong attachments and being offered practical advice and support when they need it to overcome adversity. Being alongside to ask, "how can I help?" at the right time and pace for parents and carers. Shifting towards a greater understanding of how children are exhibiting distress and whether we can work together with families, with their knowledge and consent, to find solutions to problems so that they don't escalate.

The incorporation of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, which the Government has committed to in this parliamentary cycle, offers an opportunity for us to frame discussions about how to move forward with children’s policy in Scotland. The preamble of the Convention states that the child “should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.” I can think of no better starting point for re-energising our conversations about how we can make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up than that.