Opinion column: Martin Crewe
Children's wellbeing must come first in planning and delivering children's services, and the "named person" provisions in the Scottish Government's new bill are a vital part of that
The Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill that has just started its journey through Holyrood has the potential to be one of the most far-reaching and influential bills considered in this session of the Parliament. At its heart, there is a vision that we should all share – making Scotland the best place in the world for children to grow up.
Central to the proposals to achieve this in the bill is to put the child – their needs and wellbeing – at the centre of how we deliver services to children. This represents a massive culture shift for everyone who works with children.
The bill will, for the first time, reflect in Scots law the role of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in influencing the design and delivery of policies and services. The bill creates new duties on public bodies to jointly plan service delivery for children, to co-ordinate targeted intervention and to share information when there is a concern about a child’s wellbeing. It will also strengthen the corporate parenting of children in the care system, and the support they get when they leave care, and ensure that every three and four-year-old in Scotland can access up to 600 hours of free early learning and childcare support.
Unfortunately, some of the fundamental and most important proposals have already come in for criticism, including the proposal for a “named person”. The main task, as set out in the bill, will simply be to act as a point of contact for children and families, helping them to get the best support possible from public services. Yet some commentators have criticised the named person proposal as an extension of the “nanny state” and too expensive to implement.
Neither of these criticisms is justified. Depending on the age of the child, a health visitor or teacher will usually take on the role, and in most cases will do no more than they do now. However, where concerns are brought to them by parents, children or other professionals who know the child or family, they will be able to ensure there is a co-ordinated response. They will, therefore, be in a position to spot concerns at an early stage and listen to worries from children or their parents, and work with them to find solutions before some concerns get a chance to become more serious and damaging.
The named person role has already been implemented with great success in the Highland Council area.
Bill Alexander, the Director of Health & Social Care there, has found that, for him, the role simply codifies the best practice that has always existed in Scotland: “The named person role reflects the health visitor, who knows the children and families on their caseload, including who would benefit from a little extra support. It reflects the headteacher, who takes an interest in the overall wellbeing and development of the pupils in their school – not just their attainment levels in examinations. Critically, the named person is usually someone children and families already know, and who they feel able to approach.”
Barnardo’s Scotland staff in Highland report that the system has helped ensure that children get the support they need, when they need it. There has also been a significant reduction in the number of non-offence concerns referred to the children’s reporter, and so less time is spent on writing reports.
Again, this reflects Bill Alexander’s experience: “If the family wish, the named person can request help from other agencies, without bureaucracy or excessive delay, and without the child and family having to try and make contact themselves with a host of other professionals and agencies. If other professionals have concerns about a child’s wellbeing, rather than rushing to the reporter, social work or police, the concern can be passed to the named person, who can take account of that information in the context of what they already know about the child.”
It is right that the proven benefits of this approach are now rolled out across Scotland to ensure all children and families get this support. Barnardo’s Scotland is urging ministers and MSPs to be brave, and seize on this opportunity to transform the lives of children in Scotland. It would be a real shame if misinformed criticism of the bill resulted in Scotland missing this crucial opportunity to make sure we get it right for every child.
Martin Crewe is Director of Barnardo's Scotland