Sometimes it can be hard to reduce something quite complex to a handy soundbite.
Today the Scottish Government launches a consultation on a new bill for children and young people. It and the media are focussing on the childcare element.
The government is increasing the number of hours of learning and childcare for pre-school children from 475 to 600 every year. Families will also have more flexibility about how to use this – currently, most of it is provided through school nursery provision.
But this bill is much more than a childcare charter. In itself, the bill presents Scotland with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address both the symptoms and the causes of unhappiness and difficulties in children and young people’s lives.
And the key is in the name – it’s called the children and young people bill because it puts children and young people first and foremost.
The last law to do this was made by the UK Government on Scotland’s behalf in 1995. The Children (Scotland) Act was ground-breaking but it is now 17 years old, and much has changed in that time.
We’ve had a lot of policy – most of it good – and this new bill will enshrine some of that policy in statutory duties.
For the first time, children’s rights will be embedded into primary legislation. It’s not yet clear what the Scottish Government is proposing – folk like me will be poring over the details in the weeks ahead, looking for the gaps and picking up on unintended consequences – but giving children and young people statutory rights marks a change in approach.
Giving children and young people the same kind of human rights as adults have is important, because valuing them in this way and acknowledging what they bring to our lives is a key part in changing how we treat them in our society.
As well as universal measures like the early learning commitment, there are specific measures which aim to protect the most vulnerable children and young people in our society.
The Scottish Government wants Scotland to be the best country in which children grow up. That’s a lofty ambition: if we are to make it real, then the children who don’t get the best start in life need more and better support.
For some years, getting it right for every child has been the flagship policy driving change in the child protection system. It encourages professionals to work together, to put the child’s needs at the centre of the process so that fewer fall through the net.
But too many services are not designed and delivered around the needs and interests of children – we need to turn everything a full 360 degrees to achieve change.
And that means starting with the child, listening to him or her, and thinking about what he or she needs to have a happy and healthy, safe and secure childhood. It sounds like common sense, and largely it is but systems and processes have a habit of marginalising children and young people.
By changing the approach, by insisting upon such change through legislation, we have a chance to make a real difference to some of Scotland’s most vulnerable children.
This bill is good news for our children and young people. When times are tough, it is too easy to cut services for those who need them most, because they and their families are least equipped to protest.
But in the coming year, the needs and interests of children and young people will be at the top of the political agenda and dominate parliamentary time. That in itself sends out all the right messages.
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