Interview - Susan Deacon

The Scottish government's early years champion and author of the Joining the Dots report discusses why Scotland must do better in bringing up children and how more collaborative approaches are needed to guide the way ahead. Interview by Julia Belgutay Photography by James Glossop

In Joining the Dots, you said the message of the importance of the early years needed to be heard far more consistently in debate and translated into decisions - has that happened?

Not on the scale that it needs to happen. I am deeply disappointed that a lot of the work that has taken place since has defaulted back to professionally owned, process-based approaches, which have been ineffective in the past. It is also just too challenging for us as a society to hold up a mirror and acknowledge that we could be doing an awful lot better at bringing up our children.

How does the work in early years match up to what you recommended?

The last thing I want to do is question the commitment and the amount of work lots of people do, but I don't share the enthusiasm for the processes and the degree of time and energy put into expert-led forums. It also disappoints me that too much emphasis has been placed on bigger organisations, rather than organic, community-based ones.

Why is early intervention and prevention so important?

We spend a lot of time, energy and money on remedying problems that could have been headed off at the pass if we had acted on the innate human insight we have and the shedloads of science and evidence that surround us.

What can the education sector do?

This needs to be a much more public conversation. We need to share responsibility better throughout the education system. Parents have huge responsibility, but as children grow up, they also have an increasing responsibility for their own learning.

Recent figures showed spending on nursery education in some local authorities had dropped by as much as 40 per cent - what do you make of those figures?

I am concerned about any diminution of support for children and families. But what I would say is this: how much you spend does not equal how much you achieve. I also recognise the realities of budgets having to be reduced.

Do the cuts indicate that government plans to invest in early years have fallen on deaf ears?

I think you need to drill down. There are some local authorities that are thinking very creatively and innovatively about how they maintain - or even enhance - nursery and other early years provision in the context of reduced public spending; others less so. So I think it is important to look beyond just the numbers or the pound signs.

Is the EIS right to be doing battle with Glasgow City Council over the removal of teachers from early years settings?

It is my firm view that over the past 10 to 20 years we have over-professionalised many areas of care and education - not just in early years. Don't get me wrong: I recognise and value the contribution that a qualified teacher, health visitor or educational psychologist can make, but the key is to get the right mix of people working together - and that mix might look different in different circumstances.

Is there a country from which we can take inspiration when it comes to early years education?

I think we can learn from a whole range of countries, but we shouldn't fall into the trap of thinking we can just import and graft another country's history and culture on to our own.

In the past, you have called for the quicker removal of children from toxic homes. Is enough being done there?

Every situation is different and the professionals involved need to be able to consider each situation to work out what is best for the child and the family. I know due process has to be followed, but there needs to be more of a sense of urgency and probably less bureaucracy around some of those issues. I would like to see us allow more space for good professional judgement.

What do you see as your greatest achievement as a politician?

I really believe in the saying, "It is amazing what you can achieve when you don't care who gets the credit." I don't like the notion that somehow this big shiny minister comes in and does all these wonderful things. But I was really proud to have established, in tandem with Sir David Carter, then chief medical officer, Scotland's first ever National Health Improvement Fund and an autonomous Public Health Institute for Scotland and, to be honest, was disappointed that these were effectively dismantled after I left office.

How is the Scottish government doing on drugs policy?

I think we are in denial, frankly, about the scale of the problem we have, not just with hard or illegal drugs but with addiction and mental health more broadly. The impact that is having, particularly at the acute end of the spectrum, on very young children I regard as utterly unacceptable.

If you had your time as a minister again, what would you do differently?

One reason I rail against how ineffective it is to do a fancy consultation, policy document, guidance, implementation procedure, expert group model, is because I lived it and it didn't work. If I had my time again, I would put less faith in that and I would use the platform of government more to try to stimulate open, wider, public conversation around some of these issues.


Born: Musselburgh, 1964

Education: Musselburgh Burgh Primary, Musselburgh Grammar, Edinburgh University

Career: admin support and research for elected members at West Lothian District Council, MSP for Edinburgh East and Musselburgh, Scotland's first cabinet minister for health and community care, Scottish government's early years champion, author of 'Joining the Dots', assistant principal corporate engagement and a professorial fellow of the University of Edinburgh.

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