Good Practice - Is this the end of Stockholm syndrome?

29th November 2013 at 00:00
Scotland has long looked to Scandinavia for superior models of education and social policy. But as Henry Hepburn discovers, surprising new findings could turn this situation on its head

"Do cider and Fruit Pastilles count as fruit?"

That question reveals a lot about Scotland's self-image. It was posed, in jest, after a short film comparing life in Glasgow and Gothenburg had thrown up several surprises. Twice as many people in the Scottish city ate five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day than in the Swedish one, the film revealed, prompting quips on Twitter about the Caledonian version of five a day.

Many Scots would share that incredulity at the idea that Scotland could outshine a Nordic country in any way. These nations are typically depicted as progressive models to aspire to, and we wring our hands at our inability to match Finnish education or Swedish social policy.

But a far more nuanced picture emerged at the Edinburgh event where the film was shown. "Growing up in Scotland and Scandinavia: what do our longitudinal studies tell us about our children's well-being?" brought together experts in children's issues from Scotland and several Nordic countries. The message was that Scotland failed to appreciate how well it was doing in some crucial areas, was getting much better where it had traditionally failed and in some regards might even be surpassing Scandinavia.

Problems shared

The event showed that the Nordic countries have difficulties, too. Mental health among young adults is a big problem in Norway, said University of Bergen child psychology professor Kjell Morten Stormark. High-school dropout rates also caused concern. "This is one of the big challenges for Norway," he said. "A tremendous amount of money has been put into the education system. We are still not doing particularly well in that area."

University of Gothenburg child and adolescent psychiatry professor Chris Gillberg touched on Swedish successes in childhood well-being. The 19 months' paid leave for parents of newborn children, which couples can divide as they see fit, has had the biggest impact, he said, but the 1979 ban on smacking children and the willingness of the vast majority of mothers to breastfeed for six months were also important.

But there were problems: communication between education and health professionals left much to be desired - all teachers needed to learn more about the problems that could affect children outside school, he said - and anti-bullying programmes frequently came undone.

Liz Levy, a Scottish government project manager, listed problem areas for her country's young people: teenage pregnancy, alcohol, infant mortality, physical activity, body image and participation rates in further education.

Most of these have been debated ad nauseam in the media, but the success stories Ms Levy went on to highlight felt less stale: longitudinal research showed that Scotland had high educational attainment, excelled in reducing smoking among young people (as many 15-year-olds smoked in Gothenburg as in Glasgow) and had made impressive strides forward in tackling bullying.

And where Scotland did have problems, indicators were often moving in the right direction: teenage pregnancy rates were falling, more teens were staying on in education after their 16th birthday, alcohol consumption fell markedly between 1998 and 2010 and infant mortality was down.

Social inequality continues to blight Scotland, as Ms Levy showed by drawing attention to a shocking statistic: by the age of 5, children with a degree-educated parent were, in vocabulary ability, on average 18 months ahead of children whose parents had no qualifications. But even here there was good news: the inequality gap was more likely to be narrowed now that it had become a central part of Scotland's "national performance framework".

And for all the problems they faced, research showed that Scottish children were strikingly upbeat. When children with a mean age of 7 from the extensive Growing Up in Scotland longitudinal survey were asked if they wished their life could be different, only 11 per cent replied "always" or "often".

"Young people seem to be fairly satisfied with their lives in Scotland," Ms Levy said. "That gives us something to celebrate."

Changing attitudes

The upbeat mood at the event was not confined to statisticians and civil servants. "One of the very positive things about Scotland is that we now have a national commitment to achieve child development targets," said Phil Wilson, University of Aberdeen professor of primary care and rural health. He was aware of growing sophistication in policymakers' attitudes to young people since the early days of devolution: "Huge money went into youth crime and antisocial behaviour (then), but we are now thinking differently."

Although attitudes had changed, Professor Wilson stressed that there remained a "quantum difference in investment in children" between Scotland and the Nordic countries.

Matt Forde, head of services for children's charity the NSPCC in Scotland, tempered his praise for recent progress with a warning that there was a "tendency to stop and congratulate ourselves", meaning that complacency often set in. He cited the system of children's hearings, which had continued to be lauded as world-leading even when many children were being failed.

Professor Wilson called for drastic measures to kick-start an improvement in children's well-being, including annual health checks for all children until they start school, with heads rolling if year-on-year improvement was not achieved. "People should lose their jobs if they fail to deliver," he said. He added that social workers should be called upon as a matter of routine if families did not turn up for the mandatory checks, similar to practices in Norway, Finland and the Netherlands.

Some questioned the wisdom of comparisons with other countries. "I think there's a big risk in thinking we can import another cultural model that doesn't have the same context," said Aline-Wendy Dunlop, a University of Strathclyde emeritus professor specialising in early childhood education and care. "Pasi Sahlberg (the well-known Finnish education activist) was very powerful at the Scottish Learning Festival when he said Finland might be doing better, but don't think you can import it."

Policymakers should be wary of spending too much time looking outward, Professor Dunlop said. Rather than scouring other countries for practices to bring back and apply to children in Scotland, they should innovate from within.

"It's about how you look at your own community and find local solutions," she said. "I would love to see a strong, proud Scottish model of early childhood."


The longitudinal research study Growing Up in Scotland provided the basis for Scottish data presented at the event in Edinburgh. Researchers have tracked the lives of thousands of children and their families from birth through to adulthood, with around 14,000 children involved since work began in 2003. Key findings include:

Aged 10 months, 79 per cent of babies live with two parents while 21 per cent live with a single parent.

In 2011-12, 53 per cent of families with a 10-month-old baby had no savings or investments.

5 per cent of children are from an ethnic minority.

Five-year-olds with a degree-educated parent are around 18 months ahead on vocabulary - and 13 months ahead on problem-solving - compared with children whose parents have no qualifications.

Four-year-olds living in the most deprived areas are more likely to have a mother who smokes, including during pregnancy; a mother with a long-term health problem or disability; a poor diet; low levels of physical activity; and to have never been breastfed.

In 2011-12, 52 per cent of parents regularly used childcare, including grandparents, for their child aged 10 months.

In 2010, 22 per cent of six-year-olds were overweight or obese.

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