Sallyann Kelly

15th June 2012 at 01:00
The acting director of Barnardo's Scotland reveals why she feels the country is divided, why schools exclude too easily and how everyone would benefit from seeing looked-after children as a valuable asset, not a drain on society. Photography David Gordon

You have described Scotland as a `very divided and judgemental society'. Could you explain?

It's a very unequal society. We need to have a more mature discussion about that. If you look at the most equal countries, they have the most successful individuals and their economies are the most stable.

What would that discussion home in on?

The inevitability, or not, of children failing. I'm very supportive of the Scottish government's dialogue around this. People like (chief medical officer) Harry Burns are incredibly eloquent and wise when they talk about children's very different outcomes. But I've felt disappointed throughout my career at some professionals' acceptance of the inevitability of failure.

How well does Scotland deal with looked-after children?

We have done a lot of work in the past 10-15 years; we have made inroads around educational attainment. But looked-after children still perform worse than the general population. Action must take place earlier. We can't expect a child who has had a disrupted background and a number of difficult attachments to adults to suddenly, if we start intervention at age 14, turn everything around.

Do Scottish schools exclude children too readily?

Yes. To be fair, many are developing good policies around looked-after children, and I'm not unsympathetic that in a class of 25-30 the teacher needs to focus on all children. But we need to look at things like Curriculum for Excellence and what that means to children who find classroom settings difficult. Schools are still quite regimented; an example is uniform. Being stringent with uniform is creating another obstacle. When these kids come through the school gates we should be celebrating - I don't care if they turn up in a nightie.

How does Scotland compare internationally in terms of early intervention?

Harry Burns thinks we are a wee bit hard on ourselves. We are making progress, but we have got a way to go. This isn't just about service delivery but how we construct our country. We are far too risk-averse. Research shows that unsupervised, safe play is important, but some things I did when I was wee would not be tolerated now. We used to play "chap door, run"; we got a row, but nobody phoned the police.

How long will it take to see the benefits?

This is about generational change. But there are quick fixes with early intervention: smoking-cessation programmes, promoting breast feeding, working with families around attachment and play.

Is there an argument for zero tolerance in extreme cases, perhaps involving child abuse and drug-addicted parents?

I don't think being a drug user means you can't be a good parent; it presents challenges. I certainly wouldn't be jumping to the zero-tolerance route. With abuse, it depends on its nature and the context. When the state intervenes we need to be clear what we are trying to achieve, and clear about setting objectives based on the child's best interests, not the parents'. And the plan must be executed in proper time - there is far too much delay.

Are teachers aware enough of children's backgrounds, and do they make enough allowance?

There has been work done to increase understanding, but statistics tells us it's had limited success. If you are driven by results, and a section of your school isn't ever going to achieve those results, there is an issue. I believe looked-after children can achieve as well as the average. We need society to accept looked-after children as a valuable asset, not a drain.

Do anti-bullying schemes work?

It's better to promote something positive rather than start by labelling a negative. If you create a school culture of respect, support and care, within that you can challenge more negative behaviours. A number of schools are reluctant to admit there is a bullying problem.

Are too many young Scots sent to prison?

Yes. We have one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world. This is not about being soft on crime, but what works. The overwhelming evidence is that prison has a limited impact on behaviour and, if anything, can exacerbate the problem.

How concerned are you about the Neet group in the current economic climate?

Very concerned, although it was a good development to have a youth employment minister. Angela Constance has been very open to having conversations with a broad range of providers. A lot of these kids come from families where work isn't a social norm - you are challenging a family fabric. The unemployment rates for young people at the moment are a potential disaster.

Which country looks after its children best?

You just need to get off a ferry in a European port to feel a different attitude towards children, where they are part of meals with their parents, where they are not just tolerated but embraced. There is a cultural shift we need to make.

How do you feel about the long-term future for Scotland's most vulnerable children?

I'm more drawn towards optimism, but I do think there are significant challenges ahead, not least some of the estimates about the number of kids that may be living in poverty by 2020.

Personal profile

Born: Edinburgh, 1965

Education: Woodmuir Primary in Breich, West Calder; West Calder High; University of Glasgow, MA politics and economic history and postgraduate diploma in social work; University of Dundee, postgraduate certificate in childhood practice


More than 20 years' experience in social work roles across a number of councils, including senior management posts.

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