Determined to improve the life chances for young people in Scotland

31st July 2009 at 01:00
Continuing our series on people who work through the summer, Emma Seith talks to the new children's commissioner. While Scotland's teachers - including his wife - recharge, Tam Baillie is laying foundations for a national consultation with young people

For Tam Baillie, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, the fact that school is out but work continues for him is inescapable. It stares him in the face every morning in the shape of his wife, Pauline, an English teacher in Glasgow, who is making the most of the summer break.

"I know that feeling of leaving somebody at home," he says, smiling. "But it was convenient when our children were growing up. My one complaint is the cost of holidays during the school break."

However, even if a six-week break was on offer, it is doubtful that Mr Baillie would take it. He is just back from a fortnight in Croatia but, by the second week, he admits, his mind was already turning to the job he started in May and the challenges and possibilities ahead.

"It's an exciting period, just a wonderful time," he says.

The school holidays have not meant the pace of work in the SCCYP office has slowed, but Mr Baillie has found that the nature of the work has changed. It has tended to be less reactive, he says, and more about future planning and taking stock, especially as Parliament also takes a long break.

"I came in six weeks before the summer break, and in that time I had three objectives - to become familiar with the office, staff and the work going on in it; to make contact with key people and agencies; and to plan what my first public statements would be.

"My attendance at the Parliament's education committee was my first real public appearance. After that, I took a break and now we need to get on and do the work. That means laying the foundations for the national consultation with children and young people. A large part will be looking at how we engage with educational institutions."

Other priorities outlined by Mr Baillie include promoting awareness and understanding of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and highlighting areas in which Scotland could do better, including disabled children, looked-after children and the children of prisoners.

Mr Baillie's first television appearance as commissioner has also landed in the summer holidays. He was featured on BBC documentary The Dark Side Of Teenage Sex, which aired last week. It found that 500 charges of rape by children and teenagers have been brought by Scottish police forces over the last five years. "I was pleased to get the opportunity to remind the audience that these are children first, and children with sexually-harmful behaviour second."

Mr Baillie is familiar with the excitement and bedding-in period which comes with a new post. The longest he has spent in one job was his six years as director of policy for Barnardo's Scotland, the post he held before becoming commissioner. Before that, he was on the frontline, working directly with troubled youngsters, from the homeless to young offenders.

After 30 years working with children and young people, the issues they face are clearly always at the top of his agenda, and holiday time is a reminder for him that it piles particular pressures on poorer families.

"In my previous job, I was acutely aware some parents were dreading the holidays because there would be no free school meals. It was not uncommon for people to be stockpiling food.

"For those in employment, there were additional caring responsibilities that had to be borne and additional costs for activities."

Mr Baillie has already decided that he will be focusing on the key points and commenting on the issues that SCCYP feels matter: "When it's an issue we really want to comment on, we want to make sure we have something significant and considered to say."

Child poverty and the early years will be among those topics. "These are the overarching issues that will have an impact on how well we realise children's rights under the UNCRC (the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child). As long as we live in an unequal Scotland, we will continue to get poor figures on the mental health of children and young people, on drug and alcohol misuse, on crime levels and on levels of imprisonment."

It is bearing witness to the consequences of poverty that gives Mr Baillie his drive, he declares. "Most of my experience is working with children on the edge. Some of them did not make it into adulthood. These experiences have shaped my thinking, motivated me and given me the drive to really want to improve the outcomes and life chances for children and young people in Scotland. That's the wonderful opportunity this role provides."

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