Bolder steps are needed to conquer services shortfall

10th June 2011 at 01:00
The new Government's greatest challenge is to get the best return on spending for Scotland's children

We have given ourselves permission to be bold," declared Alex Salmond after the election. But when it comes to Scotland's one million children and young people, how bold is the SNP Government prepared to be?

During the election campaign, Children in Scotland learned from the BBC that none of the political parties had included children's issues when asked to list their top priorities. In the leaders' debates, tuition fees had a higher profile than tackling children's services - despite a rising birth rate, pressure on school budgets and falling numbers of pre-school places.

And the promises the SNP did make on children and families were noticeably more cautious than in 2007. Then, both Mr Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon backed wider entitlements to early childhood education and care from the age of one to 12 or 14 years old, and development of a professional qualification that could apply across the children's sector workforce.

Of course, some levers that govern services for children and families remain, for now, at Westminster. But the new Parliament sees the SNP freed from the constraints of minority government. What should children's services expect?

We have to remember so much of what is needed is eminently do-able. The incoming government must set a stronger lead, both in tackling the under- development of services - particularly for early years - and ensuring a stronger focus on the broader needs of children within our educational system. We already know fully-integrated, universally-accessible services give children a better chance in life, support parents and the economy, and save money, now and in the long term. What we need is a broad vision of education and service provision as part of community development.

In Children in Scotland's pre-election interview with Alex Salmond, he emphasised the importance of integrated services - perhaps around a school campus - and expressed willingness to pilot a wider use of schools, for example as centres for out-of-school care. He agreed integrating services could be particularly beneficial in rural areas, and the Government's strengthened guidance on rural school closures, on hold before the election, presents a real opportunity for progress in this area.

We already knew implementation of Curriculum for Excellence would continue, whoever was in government. Focusing less on Pisa targets and more on a stronger social dimension of education could be the key to implementing additional support for learning (ASL) legislation effectively. It could also help in developing a more effective support package for looked-after children. But will it receive the support and resources to deliver? With responsibility for the social context still divided between the new agencies of SCSWIS (Social Care and Social Work Improvement Scotland) and Education Scotland (the merged HMIE and Learning and Teaching Scotland), it remains to be seen if it will bring the necessary sea change.

Teacher contracts are in the spotlight as the McCormac review considers everyone's submissions and prepares to publish its findings. This offers the chance to promote awareness and skills in ASL implementation. But given the work funded by the Government in the last Parliament to look at how teachers and pedagogues work together in Denmark, it would surely make sense for the review to take into account not only teachers but those who work alongside them, to strengthen our holistic approach to the needs of children and young people.

Following Susan Deacon's report, early years has to remain a priority to ensure Scotland does not fall further behind in the delivery of early- years services. It is not only a matter of "joining the dots": Scotland is falling short of measures adopted last month by all EU member states (except the Netherlands), based on the EC Communication on early childhood education and care, which includes clarification that the Barcelona targets of formal childcare for 90 per cent of children over three and 33 per cent of children under three refer to full-time places.

The promised new legislation must support progress towards universal service provision, on an integrated basis and at an affordable price, along the lines of the Nordic countries. How can we achieve this here? Maybe we should learn from Poland, where new associations are springing up in partnership with schools as a means of developing communities and overcoming rigidities in the system.

An African proverb says: "Do not look at where you fell, but where you slipped." If outcomes are not as we want, we must look at where we have failed to invest appropriately - in leadership and direction, as well as financially. We should ask if we can expect local authorities to deliver on government aspirations without guaranteeing resources to do it.

Chairing last year's independent budget review, Crawford Beveridge asked: "Are we a Scandinavian socialist country which backs wrap-around public services and high taxes to match, or a Singaporean self-reliant nation with rock-bottom taxes?"

But it isn't eitheror. Building better-value services helps make families self-reliant. It needn't be about extending free provision and entitlement via increased tax. A fair charging policy, making full use of other funds available - for example European Structural Funds or the levy of a corporation tax - can pave the way for public services that support a growing economy.

With clear leadership, effective use of resources and willingness to tackle entrenched ways of working, we have all we need to deliver strong supportive services for our children and young people.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the new Government is not the availability of finance, but the choices they need to make to bring the best return for Scotland.

Bronwen Cohen, Chief executive, Children in Scotland.

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