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How do we guarantee better, safer childhoods? Work with local communities in a movement for change

Joanna Barrett, NSPCC Scotland's Policy and Public Affairs Manager, responds to call 4 of our 25 Calls campaign, arguing that a cultural shift in our approach to child protection is needed if Scotland is to become the best place to grow up

Call 4: To end abuse and neglect, live what we know: it’s everyone’s job to make sure children are alright

As a nation, Scotland has great ambitions for our children: we want to be the best place to grow up; we’re incorporating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to fully recognise children rights in law. But we’re also a country in which almost a quarter of a million children are living in poverty, in which there are over 14,500 children who are looked after, and in which more than 2,500 children are on the child protection register. There is much work to do to match our aspirations to children’s lived reality.

In her call as part of Children in Scotland's 25 Calls campaign, Professor Daniel rightly argues that to prevent abuse and neglect, and so plug this gap between rhetoric and reality, we need greater buy-in to the message that it is everyone’s job to make sure that children are alright.

'Prevention requires us to value children, and prioritise their needs: as individuals, as communities and as a society'

Part of this ‘buy-in’ is cultural. We need greater shared understanding of what makes children ‘alright’.

As a society, (how) do we value children? Journalist Kenneth Roy charted Scottish social history and describes a particularly punitive and authoritarian culture in Scotland [1].

While times have certainly changed, these attitudes still cast a shadow over children’s experiences today. This can be clearly seen in the recent debates on the physical punishment of children. As John Finnie’s Equal Protection Bill has passed through the Scottish Parliament, questions have been asked about  whether children have rights at all, or, if they do, whether those rights have been positioned in opposition to the rights and responsibilities of parents.

A wealth of research in recent decades has taught us much about child development and what children need to thrive, and this has begun to influence policy-making. We know that children’s brains are built over time, and that this is influenced by the relationships around the child. Positive experiences in the early years and in adolescence build structures in the brain that support later health, relationships and job outcomes. Building children’s brains is group work – all the adults around children have a part to play to ensure that the experiences children have and the environments they grow up in help build their brains to ensure they have better futures.

Yet insights into child development are still largely the domain of professionals. There’s still a job to do to share this knowledge within our communities, to develop a shared understanding and appreciation for childhood and so collectively create the conditions for children to grow up safe and happy. That’s the basis of NSPCC’s Sharing the Science project: using a common language to share the science of child development with a whole community.

In addition to this cultural shift in how we view children, ‘buy in’ is also structural: the role that our policies and services play in protecting children.

‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ has become a zeitgeist of social policy in Scotland of late; the recognition that our early experiences matter. This (often retrospective) recognition is valuable, but awareness only takes you so far. What are we doing about the thousands of children who are experiencing adversity right now? Importantly, what are we doing to prevent it?

Despite more than a decade of building momentum and consensus on the importance of prevention and early intervention, we still struggle to reflect these intentions in our systems. In 2014, NSPCC and Barnardo’s Scotland published research [1] on the impact of austerity and welfare reform on family support services. We found families were increasingly presenting to services in a state of crisis, even when services were designed to deliver early intervention or preventative work. Severity of need was visibly growing and services were being forced to shift away from prevention to meet this need. Services were also struggling to develop consistent relationships with families due to funding uncertainties. We are in the process of repeating this research to see what has changed in the intervening five years.

Poverty is massively damaging for children. The stress of poverty, often interacting with issues like substance misuse or mental ill-health, can leave parents feeling overloaded, and this can impact on their relationship with their child. While children living in deprived areas are much more likely to be subject to child protection interventions [2], reducing poverty can have a positive impact on children’s experiences of abuse and neglect [3]. And so the recent Scottish Government announcement on a new Child Payment for families on low incomes is very welcome.

Where there are child protection concerns, poverty can be the elephant in the room; all too often an overwhelming facet of family life, but at the same time not openly discussed. Studies [4] have shown that child protection professionals do not have sufficient skills, and do not believe it is their role to help vulnerable families with very low income address their economic circumstances. In response to this, NSPCC has embarked upon a project with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, to work with child protection professionals to challenge assumptions and position tackling poverty as core to child protection.

The need to work at different levels to protect children is a journey we ourselves at the NSPCC have been on. That’s why we have launched our Together for Childhood initiative in Govan, Glasgow. Together for Childhood is a place-based, long term, partnership project to prevent child abuse and neglect. It aims, through creating a powerful partnership with local people and agencies, to transform how a community raises its children. By working with the community in a movement for change, we want to change the experience of childhood for the better.

Child abuse is preventable, not inevitable. Prevention requires us to value children, and prioritise their needs: as individuals, as communities and as a society.

Joanna Barrett is Policy and Public Affairs Manager at NSPCC Scotland. 




[4] ibid

About the author

Joanna Barrett is Policy and Public Affairs Manager at NSPCC Scotland. Find out more about their work here.

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Call 4

Read the original call from Professor Brigid Daniel here.

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25 Calls

Return to the main 25 Calls page to find out what change others are calling for.

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Becoming an 'Unfeartie' is just the first step in defending children's rights. Join us today

Clare and Lisa from Fa'side Women's Group respond to Call 23 of our 25 Calls campaign, which argued that Scotland should become a nation of child rights defenders.

In their short video, they share their experiences of becoming Unfearties.

Call 23 – Let’s make Scotland a nation of Unfearties!

Joining the Unfeartie movement is an important step adults can take to say that they actively support children's rights. Becoming an Unfeartie means we will defend, uphold and speak up for children's rights as part of a collective drive to transform experiences of children in Scotland.

We don't have to be experts in childcare or in human rights to become Unfearties – anyone can join the movement. And everyone who believes that children's rights should be respected and celebrated should.

In Tranent, East Lothian, Fa'side Women's Group, an informal community group for women and girls, worked with the Children's Parliament to host International Women's Day in March 2019. Two Children's Parliament Members and Children's Human Rights Defenders, Megan and Faith, facilitated a vibrant, fun-packed event that had women and girls talking about our rights – and what we need to make Tranent a human rights aware town. Our big local sign up brought more than 50 Unfearties from the local community together.

We're envisioning how as adults we can learn from children and support our bairns in fully achieving their rights. It’s an exciting journey of co-operative discovery that we hope will encourage everyone in our town to know, understand and respect children's rights. Becoming an Unfeartie is just the first step of learning.

Join us as we stand up for rights.

Clare MacGillivray, from Fa'side Women's Group, is responding here to Call 23 of our 25 Calls campaign. The Call was contributed by Rona Blackwood and Chelsea Stinson from the Children's Parliament, and Juliet Harris from Together, the Scottish Alliance for Children's Rights. Click here to read the call


Unfearties are individuals who are courageous in discussing children’s issues, and are willing to speak up for their rights

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Children's Parliament

Children's Parliament is Scotland's Centre of Excellence for Children's Participation and Engagement

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25 Calls

Return to the main 25 Calls page to find out what change others are calling for.

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Call 23

"Let’s make Scotland a nation of Unfearties!" By Children's Parliament and Together

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