Big man advocates big ideas

17th October 2008 at 01:00
Getting it right for every child is the aim of government policy. An important step would be stopping pregnant women from drinking alcohol, an American expert in child advocacy tells Douglas Blane

A project manager has brought her new baby into the office and her colleagues are mesmerised - right up to the director of research, who is cradling the dark-haired bundle expertly in his arms. "This is Children in Scotland," Jonathan Sher says unapologetically.

A grandfather for the first time this year, Dr Sher is a big man from the United States who took the decision to come to Scotland almost three years ago (with his wife and teenage son) to live and work here for the foreseeable future.

"Scotland is a good country in which to be a child advocate. Children are widely understood to be people with rights, not just potential people or the property of their parents. In the States, on the other hand, there has been a systematic dismantling of safety nets for children and families in recent years."

Three strong themes run through Dr Sher's CV - research, advocacy and action on behalf of children and young people. All are needed, even in Scotland, which is significantly more child-friendly than the States, he says.

"There is a whole layer of bad schools in the States, for example, which would not be allowed to exist in Scotland. Hundreds of thousands of children are unsuccessful in school simply because they lack access to basic healthcare - from eyeglasses to hearing aids to treatment for chronic medical conditions. Such barriers to learning are far rarer in Scotland."

But admiration for attitudes does not blind Dr Sher to deficiencies of practice. "Implementation is the challenge. Nobody needs more rhetoric about how we should get it right for every child. The point is taken. Now we need to decide who is going to do what and how."

One particular shift in public policy would make a huge difference to large numbers of children and the adults they become, says Dr Sher.

"Brain research tells us how crucially important are the first three to five years of life. Yet we spend least on children during those crucial years and most per capita on university students.

"This is not natural law. It's an incorrect and short-sighted investment decision - one we pay for many times over in negative consequences. But it is a reversible decision. The forthcoming early years framework should tell us if major resources and robust action are going to be made available for the 'transformational changes' we all agree are needed."

Prevention is not just better than cure, Dr Sher points out. It is usually less expensive - even in simple financial terms. Past failures of prevention are often manifest in the classroom. He has a strong conviction that physical causes underlie many behaviour and learning difficulties.

Foetal alcohol syndrome, the leading cause of non-genetic mental disability in the western world, is a pressing example, he says.

"This is recognised as a major issue in countries with far less of a drinking culture than Scotland.

"International comparisons suggest there could be 8,000 undiagnosed cases of foetal alcohol damage in Scotland. We need to understand and support all the affected children - and stop the steady stream of new cases. The permanent harm caused by alcohol during pregnancy is 100 per cent preventable.

"It is a huge cultural blind spot in Scotland. The Government's proposed alcohol strategy has finally recognised that there is a problem. But the new steps proposed are too timid."

This is a single - though crucial - instance of a second major shift in policy and investment that would, says Dr Sher, reap huge rewards.

"My son is taught at school how not to become a parent. But he gets no guidance at all on how to be a good one. Most young people will become parents at some time in their lives, but they get no serious preparation. It should be a universal part of education."

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