BRONWEN Cohen is better known throughout Europe than in Scotland.

The chief executive of Children in Scotland (CiS) has just returned from a research trip to Hungary looking at the role of nurseries for the under-threes in identifying young children with problems and providing additional support for them at an early age.

Appropriately, this sums up the main strands of her 21 years running the charity that now works with more than 400 voluntary, statutory and professional organisations for Scottish children. It is the collective voice for those directly engaged in children's wellbeing, provides training and is a forum for exchanging knowledge.

Crucially, however, that is backed by considerable research expertise. That reflects not only Dr Cohen's own academic background in social policy but her two decades at the head of CiS which have been marked by an increasing awareness of the key importance of high-quality care and education for young children before they go to school and an exchange of ideas and models of good practice with other members of the EU.

Her involvement with CiS began when she was seconded from Edinburgh University as a mediator to the then Scottish Child and Family Alliance, whose independence was in danger of being swamped by a London-based organisaton. The result was a reincarnation as Children in Scotland in 1993 as an entirely independent organisation which works in partnership with the equivalent bodies in the other parts of the UK.

Dr Cohen believes it is essential Scotland has its own agencies to look at issues in a Scottish context. Despite devolution, she says, there is still a problem with decisions taken at Westminster being unhelpful to policy in Scotland and cites the example of services for children in the pre-school years.

"This is an area where Scotland was once in the forefront with Robert Owen who offered the first integrated childhood care and education services, something that is better known in other countries than it is in Scotland," she explains.

"In the days of Strathclyde Region, Scotland was a beacon in Europe and provided a model in drawing services together that was followed in Sweden and Spain. Now, however, we have less provision than in England, where there is a requirement for local authorities to provide child care".

Because making high-quality childcare available to all allows more women to return to work, she argues it should be funded by the Government as part of the economic infrastructure. In Scotland's case, however, the extra tax receipts (and potential benefits savings) generated will go to the Treasury.

Compared with other European countries, Scotland, in common with the rest of the UK, looks very poor indeed. Slovenia, for example, has a system of integrated, universal early childhood education and care to put Scotland to shame.

"If you look at the figures for child poverty, the biggest group of children suffering from poverty is the under-fives and in particular the under-threes. One of the reasons is that we are not offering enough paid leave but it is also the lack of affordable, good-quality services. That is the single biggest reason why we have so many children living in poverty. In my view you cannot begin to address some of the targets for reducing it unless you take on that issue," says Dr Cohen.

Her championing of an increase in paid parental leave, particularly for fathers, has led some to criticise her as unrealistically utopian. She counters this with practical suggestions such as making far greater use of schools: "For me it's a conundrum that while we hear the deafening noise about the lack of resources, we have institutions called schools, although there is now a trend to bring out-of-school services into schools."

Universal early-years services has become her mantra and as she prepares to step down as head of CiS, she clearly regrets this is unfinished business.

She points out that the current targeted approach has the disadvantage that we tend to view children in terms of their problems rather than the fact they are citizens. "We should recognise that countries that have been smarter over this in relation to their children have been smarter in relation to their economies as well."

The international dimension Dr Cohen brings to her work stems from a deep interest in the effect of place on identity. After living in Newfoundland, she moved to Shetland to write her thesis on place and identity because it was somewhere she and her husband, an anthropologist, could both work.

Later, as policy officer for the Equal Opportunities Commission, she became the UK representative on the European Commission's influential childcare network. That ensured she brought a continuing openness to what we could learn from other countries to her views on policies here.

Her promotion of the Danish use of pedagogues (highly-qualfied children's workers) is one of the ideas for which she has become particularly well-known and CiS has opened the debate about introducing pedagogues to Scotland.

"I have been very struck by the pedagogue model because it encompasses a lot of the skills people are looking for in those working with children. The Scottish Government's debate on the future shape of the children's sector workforce has been considering the issue that many of those working with the youngest and most vulnerable children are often the least well-trained and lowest paid.

"Sometimes people think good policies happen almost by magic but actually they often follow good public debate. We think it was very successful as a debate and it is still on-going. Other groups are looking at it and some of the local authorities are interested in the idea of pedagogues working with the elderly and with looked-after children.

"It could also be a way of making a fragmented workforce more effective. For example, classroom assistants who may also work in after-school provision. It's also a way of increasing involvement with the arts; I've never met a pedagogue who didn't have at least two musical instruments."

The arts are important to her personally as well as professionally and she thinks that is one area where Scotland is doing well. She's pleased, for example, with the Scottish Arts Council's change of name to Creative Scotland because she sees it as being more inclusive.

"In our review of the children's sector workforce we found the arts were significant in every area yet the only people working in the arts whom you could count were teachers.Those working in other ways are in marginalised projects."

That dovetails with her long-standing fascination with the formative influence of place. For the edition of Children in Europe she edited last year, she interviewed the artist John Bellany about his childhood in the fishing villages of Port Seton and Eyemouth and still delights over his response: "It's good to be talking about my childhood – I've been painting it for such a long time".

She's proud that CiS is the publisher of the English language edition of Children in Europe, published simultaneously in 15 languages, saying: "If we ask a commissioner for an article, we get it."

Her own childhood place, however, remains a closed book. She says that having lived in so many places, she now likes to regard herself as a citizen of the world. But she and her husband, whose appointment as head of department at Edinburgh University brought them to the city, have spent much of their family life in Scotland. They have three sons and two grandchildren. The Welsh origins suggested by her name apparently only surface when Wales plays Scotland at rugby.

Her interest in place is long-standing, having been part of her academic work before the opportunities offered by the European Commission and CiS, and she will happily talk about her fascination with islands and Shetland in particular. The sense of place inspired the Children in Scotland architecture and design award for building.

The winners ranged from schools to the regeneration of a 100-year-old market in Bangkok as a library. However, the project also prompted some despair in Dr Cohen: "I discovered that when they build new secondary schools they build out the foundations so they can easily add to the building later but that is not done as a matter of course with primary schools, yet the birth rate has been going up in Scotland."

The strapline on all CiS publications is "every child, every childhood". This is more than wishful thinking: she says it's based on the "very strong" evidence universal services are the most effective way of reaching children.

Her persistent advocacy for children has done much to influence official policy but although she thinks there is much forward thinking, she sees a long way to go before our culture nurtures children wholeheartedly.

As ever, she finds the view of Scotland from abroad a useful gauge: "People from other countries are very struck by the focus we have on targeting and disadvantage and the image of the child that seems to conjure up."

Keen to be positive, she mentions the interest she's found abroad in Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence and the fact it stretches from three to 18. Passionately, however, Dr Cohen insists it should start at birth. She is stepping down from CiS to pursue her own research interests but children not yet born may find her influence eventually prevails.