Clare Simpson: project manager, Parenting across Scotland
Clare Simpson opens this essay collection by making the
case for a national parenting strategy which creates the conditions
for parents, and their children, to succeed.
The Scottish Government wants to make
Scotland the best place
in the world to bring up children (The Scottish Government
2011). So, right now, just how close are we to that target?
A poll of the Scottish public carried out by TNS-BMRB for
Parenting across Scotland found that 50% of the Scottish public
either strongly agreed or slightly agreed that Scotland is the best
place in the world to bring up children'*
(TNS-BMRB 2012). However, in 2007, the Organisation for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD) placed the UK near the bottom of
the league table for children's wellbeing (OECD 2007) (16th out of
24 countries); further analysis by Barnardo's placed Scotland even
further behind (23 out of 24) (Barnardo's 2007). The bad news is
that there is a long way to go. The good news is that there is
considerable room for improvement and much we can do to improve
children's lives and opportunities.
What does a national parenting strategy need to do?
A national strategy needs to:
- Value the importance of parenting and the important work
- Ensure that parents get the help they need when they need it,
through the principle of 'progressive universalism'
- Invest in the early years, and in particular, reinvigorate the
crucial profession of health visiting
- Improve work-life balance and encourage shared parenting, by
making workplaces more family-friendly and standing alongside
a new childcare strategy
- Support parents to build their own communities of support
through family centre and investing in communities
The importance of parenting
All too often, parents feel under attack by the media and
judgement from other people. While the OECD tables and headline
reporting paint a bleak picture of parenting in Scotland, they do
not tell the whole story. The vast majority of parents love and
want to do the best for their children, and very many parents in
Scotland are already doing so.
With the right help and support, many more will be able to do
so. Constant negative publicity about parenting, while many of the
statistics are based on solid evidence, is debilitating for parents
and undermines their best efforts for their children. Building a
culture where we value parents and the important work they do,
needs to be grounded in positivity and celebration so that parents
feel supported and valued rather than constantly under attack. A
national parenting strategy that trusts parents and believes in
their ability to succeed is far more likely to engage parents, and
to create the conditions for parents to succeed.
Help for parents when they need it
All parents need support at times, and some families need more
than others. Some families may need extra help on a continuing
basis, while, for others, circumstances such as separation,
bereavement or child health, may create additional need at
When resources are scarce it is tempting to say that
concentrating on the families with additional needs will save
money. However, it is a fallacious argument. We need universal
services - health in the very early years, followed by education -
which support families and prevent problems turning into crises;
make asking for help a routine behaviour for all families; and
monitor children's wellbeing and health so that problems can be
picked up early and specialist help offered. There should not be a
tension between universal and targeted services - we need both,
based on the principle of progressive universalism that identifies
need and responds as early as possible, and provides additional
help to those who need it (Marmot et al. 2010).
Families are not created equal. Many face extra pressure, for
example, because of mental health, domestic abuse or substance
abuse problems. With punitive welfare reforms imminent, helping
parents on low incomes is especially critical. While evidence
(Mountney 2012) shows that parents surviving on low incomes are not
poorer parents, they do struggle against greater odds. No amount of
parenting classes or other family support can make up for lack of
money. Naomi Eisenstadt, first director of the SureStart programme
in England, said of the focus on parenting programmes,
rather put the food on the table. In the absence of any talk about
paying the bills, this focus is disrespectful because it assumes
that these are the problems poor people have, and does not
recognise that the main problem poor people have is not having
enough money (Guardian 22/11/11). Policy makers need to tackle
problems arising from structural inequalities.
Investing in early years
There is substantial evidence that investing in the early years
yields rich economic savings in years to come. The Scottish
Parliament's finance committee and the Scottish Government's own
economic modelling have shown the value of investing in early
intervention in the early years. The early years are considered to
be a significant time for brain development. But beyond the cold
justification of economics and neuroscience, surely it is simply
wrong that, by the age of three, large numbers of children in
Scotland are already at a disadvantage to their peers?
Making sure that families have help around them in the early
years is crucial. Health provides universal contact, initially,
through GPs and midwifery services and then through health
visiting. Polls by Ipsos MORI for Parenting across Scotland (Ipsos
MORI for PAS 2008 and 2010) show that families in Scotland greatly
trust health visitors and GPs. But with health visitor numbers
falling (the average age of health visitors in Scotland is rising
and fewer new recruits are being trained), the profession is in
crisis. Unless action is taken soon, it will cease to exist. To be
serious about improving the early years, pivotal professions need
investment and reinvigoration. However, supporting the early years
is not just about providing support in the early years. In
particular, we need to look at how we support adult couple
relationships; how we educate children; and how we support parents
of teenagers. We need to educate children, the parents of the
future, about relationships and emphasise empathy and kindness: the
health and wellbeing strand of the Curriculum for Excellence offers
an excellent opportunity to do this.
From day one, children see how their parents relate to them and
to each other, so this needs to be as positive as possible. The
chances of couples splitting up are significantly increased in the
first few years after a child's birth. Whether it is about enabling
couples to stay together or about making the process of separation
and parenting apart as free of conflict as possible, evidence
(Walker et al. 2010) shows that support for the adult relationship
improves outcomes for families.
Negotiating the path to adult independence is frequently rocky
for parents and teenagers. Even the best experience in the early
years, does not guarantee a smooth transition to adulthood.
Evidence from neuroscience (Society for Neuroscience 2007) shows
that the teenage brain develops almost as dramatically as in the
early years. However, although over a third of all calls to
ParentLine are from parents of teenagers, there are very few
services for them.
Enabling parents to work and have home lives
Parenting does not take place in a vacuum. The external
environment has considerable influence and, in particular, family
life is often a juggling act between home and work. Increasingly,
both parents need to work to ensure an adequate income. The
stresses of combining work and home life, coupled with soaring
childcare costs (Daycare Trust 2012), are barriers to good
parenting. While employment and parental leave are reserved to
Westminster, much could be done in Scotland to make work a more
family-friendly experience. A national parenting strategy needs to
work with employers to encourage more flexible working and
family-friendly policies, and must accompany a new childcare
strategy that enables parents to work and to escape poverty.
Communities of support for parents
A national parenting strategy isn't the bludgeon of a 'nanny
state': it is a tool to help parents to be the best they can be.
Every family is unique, and parents are generally the people who
know what's best for their own children. While health and education
provide the all-important universal services, research consistently
shows that parents rely most on informal networks. These
communities need to be supported to flourish. Opportunities for
parents to meet; support for local parent groups; and training from
community organisers to build parental capacity are all important
for building communities of support for parents.
Making Scotland the best place for children
There is a long way to go to make Scotland the best place in the
world to bring up children. If the Scottish Government is serious
about its intention, it needs to put its money where its mouth is
and invest in families. It needs to work across government
departments and ministerial briefs to ensure that it creates an
environment in which families can thrive. Scotland's families
deserve no less.
*125% disagreed; 20% neither agreed nor
disagreed; 5% did not know.
About the author
Clare Simpson has worked in the voluntary
sector in Scotland for over 30 years in organisations including
Shelter, the Scottish Refugee Council and Citizens Advice Scotland.
She has been project manager at Parenting across Scotland since
Barnardo's Scotland (2007). Index of wellbeing for
children in Scotland. Edinburgh: Barnardo's Scotland
Ipsos MORI for PAS (2008). What parents tell us.
Edinburgh: Parenting across Scotland
Ipsos MORI for PAS (2010). What parents tell us.
Edinburgh: Parenting across Scotland
Marmot, M. et al. (2010). Fair society, healthy lives: the
Marmot review. The Marmot Review
Mountney, K., (2012). Parenting on a low income.
About Families. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University
OECD (2007). Doing better for children
The Daycare Trust (2012). Childcare costs survey. See
The Scottish Government (2011). Financial impact of early
years. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government
The Scottish Government (2011). Renewing Scotland: the
Government's programme for Scotland 2011-12. Edinburgh: The
The Scottish Parliament (2011). Report on preventative spending.
Finance Committee. Edinburgh: Scottish Parliament
Society for Neuroscience (2007). Brain briefings: the
adolescent brain. Washington: Society for Neuroscience
TNS-BMRB Omnibus (2012). Scottish Opinion Survey. February
Walker J., Barrett, H., Wilson, G., and Chang, Y.-S., (2010).
Relationships Matter: understanding the needs of adults
(particularly parents) regarding relationship support,
Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University. Department
of Children, Schools and Families