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Putting family first

Like they say, kids don't come with a manual.

Neither do they arrive with a matching set of life chances, or even always a matched set of parents.

But the impact of those parents or carers can determine to a significant extent how many of these children will reach adulthood healthy, happy, well adjusted and possessing the means to make good relationships with their own offspring.

Tomorrow Parenting Across Scotland, an umbrella organisation for some of the highest profile children's charities in Scotland, will unveil a raft of specially commissioned essays at a conference in Edinburgh.

Written by a range of professionals both academic and hands on, it's a bold attempt to ensure that when the Scottish Government delivers on its commitment to a national parenting strategy, the latter will be informed by hard-won experience rather than decorated with pious hopes.

Many of the essays in the anthology draw on best practice from other nations. Alan Sinclair notes the wry judgment from a Dutch-born colleague now settled here:

"In Scotland you tolerate children," she suggested. "In Holland we love them."

More importantly in strategic terms is a Dutch system which plumbs in mother and baby wellbeing support from birth till school age. Many Nordic family support systems stretch well into the teenage years.

A pan-European study led by Children in Scotland last year came to the firm conclusion that the best results were achieved by countries which offered universal support services to parents and children rather than targeted ones.

As Clare Simpson, PAS' project manager observes in her scene setter: "When resources are scarce it's tempting to say that concentrating on families with additional needs will save money, but it's a fallacious argument. We need universal services – health in the early years followed by education – which support families and prevent problems turning into crises."

That commitment to universality unites most of the contributors, though the NSSPCC's Matt Forde cautions that some desperate situations need desperate and specific measures. In his view, "universalist approaches must be supplemented by intervention for children most at risk. Without some targeting, action will come too late for too many children to ever recover from the damage of abuse."

Nobody quibbles with the emphasis we need to put on the nought to three age group as a crucial stage of development, not least in the light of a recent raft of hard evidence, some of it commissioned by the government itself.

Yet as Children in Scotland's Sarah Burton notes: "Childcare, particularly for children under three, is treated as an entirely private matter. There is little state support for it unless children are officially deemed at risk and childcare is viewed as necessary for child protection." And she adds: "The impact of children's early years upon their lifelong health and wellbeing is huge. Sustained investment in young children could have a transformative effect on the nation's health and wellbeing."

As many contributors spell out in a variety of ways, being poor doesn't make you a bad parent, but poverty and the stresses it causes means that your energies are inevitably directed to the daily struggles of keeping kids fed and clothed. There are rarely funds or opportunities left over for the stimulating leisure activities other families take for granted.

The Growing Up in Scotland study unearthed the depressing statistic that a quarter of our three and four-year-olds and a fifth of those at five and six were living in "persistently poor families" which is an awful lot of little people being under-nourished in every way.

The fact that half of Scotland's poor children live in households with a working parent speaks volumes about the likely collateral damage from the changes in benefits which have just come into play, penalising part timers who can't get their hours up to 24 per week.

A specially vulnerable group are the children of Scotland's high number of problem alcohol and drug abusing parents, and those with parents in prison. If that parent is the mother, the overwhelming likelihood is the family home will be split up in her absence.

And the record of children coming out of care is also woeful; hugely over-represented in those likely to be jobless, homeless or end up in the criminal justice system.

But most people who contributed to the PAS anthology were clear that a parenting strategy would not work if it was seen as only being directed at "problem" families. Clear too that, as children's commissioner Tam Baillie notes, midwifery and health visiting are already universal non stigmatising services.

Yet these are also services in crisis. Many voices raised in praise of the unique contribution which can be made by health visitors, also feared for the existence of a group of professionals whose role had shrunk beyond recognition in terms of the numbers available and the lack of that precious commodity, client time.

Another difficulty the government faces is getting the tone right as well as the substance of any parenting strategy. As Sally Anne Kelly of Barnardo's suggests, parents and families are instinctively private about what goes on behind their doors and are not comfortable about the state butting in. She cites the debate over smacking as a case in point.

"This is one of the biggest hurdles the strategy will face, it must be meaningful enough to achieve its objectives, but not so intrusive that most parents and families reject it."

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