Walking the talk for youth

24th April 2009 at 01:00
The outgoing children's tsar tells Emma Seith that all schools should nurture pupils and staff must drop the attitude that they are just there to teach

The harsh realities of some children's lives, caused by the growing problem of drug-abusing parents in particular, will increasingly make school one of the few places where they come into contact with responsible adults they can trust, according to Kathleen Marshall. She leaves her job today after five years as Scotland's first Commissioner for Children and Young People.

"For a lot of children, school will present the best possibility of nurture and that makes it difficult to say `this is about subjects and grades'," she says.

Scotland has many good, caring schools, she stresses, but not all are up to scratch. "My experience of going round schools has been that there are significant differences," Mrs Marshall continues. "Sometimes there is a huge feeling of warmth and community, while in others you go in and you feel like you are going to get hauled up by the headteacher."

If schools were to become more nurturing, shouting would not fit with the ethos, she feels, an issue which earned her some unwelcome tabloid attention when she first raised it in 2004. "Abusive, aggressive shouting, which denigrates and humiliates children, breaches young people's rights," she declares.

She also feels that, in a more nurturing environment, suspension and exclusion would be reserved for "extreme cases"; a stronger community atmosphere would involve "working together and putting up with each other sometimes".

Mrs Marshall admits she was not always passionate about children's rights, and says she became interested in a bit of a "mumsy" way.

After 11 years away from the world of work to bring up her three children, she began volunteering at the Scottish Child Law Centre because it sounded "a nice thing to do in law". However, being involved in the issues and listening to children "radicalised" her. In four months, she was co- director and became director in six.

When asked her worst moment as commissioner, she laughs: "There have been so many - it's a challenging job."

During her fight to stop dawn raids on asylum-seeker families and the detention of young people in Dungavel, on which she called for a "public outcry", she stopped reading newspapers because the tabloids could be so "vicious". Now, she rates it one of her proudest achievements that the asylum situation has changed, although it is still not perfect.

Others also rate her. Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland, says she has "set the gold standard for children's commissioners in the UK". Dr Cohen adds: "She has combined shrewd analysis with the ability to engage with children and young people, presenting their view as it is and not as adults would like it to be."

Mrs Marshall's stance over refugee children was a really important one, Dr Cohen believes. "She really demonstrated the importance of an independent commissioner."

Loretta Scott, a quality improvement officer in Glasgow, with responsibility for pastoral care in schools, agrees. "It was hugely difficult for schools having two children sitting in a class where teachers were attempting to promote pastoral care and welfare, yet one of them was being treated so differently," she says.

"She has challenged us to reflect on how we treat young people and the place we give them in society. I like the way she has walked her own talk, listened to young people and given them a voice."

But Conservative deputy leader Murdo Fraser believes Mrs Marshall made herself an early target for the tabloid press by going campaigning "too enthusiastically" against the law on smacking. "That rather skewed public opinion of her and her office," he says.

Although he is open to the idea of merging her post and creating a single commissioner to deal with human rights, a proposal currently on the table, Mr Fraser judges that she has done "pretty well" and he found her willingness to listen and engage "very good".

One subject they would probably agree on is what should happen to the 60,000 children of drug-abusing parents. Mrs Marshall would like to see children permanently removed from such parents as babies, instead of spending their childhoods in and out of local authority care.

However, she is not in favour of automatic adoption, arguing that every case has to be looked at individually. "We have to become more confident in establishing and providing alternatives to give these children a stable life," she comments. "If that means taking them away from home, it has to be done."

Generally, Mrs Marshall believes Scotland has the laws and systems in place to protect and care for children - at least in theory. Implementation, however, is another matter. She cites the much-lauded children's hearings system which, while looking good on paper, does not have the resources to make effective interventions.

"We don't need to change the system but we need to resource and support it more," she says.

New commissioner

Kathleen Marshall's successor is Tam Baillie, the director of policy at Barnardo's Scotland for the past six years. Parliament approved his appointment this week and, following its rubber-stamping by the Queen, he is expected to take up his post in mid-May.

Mr Baillie has worked in the field of children's issues for 30 years, specialising in young offenders, children in care and the young homeless.

The recruitment process for the new commissioner included contributions by 17 young people.

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