Issue 8: January 2014


By Mary Glasgow, Assistant Director Children's Services, Barnardo's

Lee (not his real name) is sticking his tongue out at his 5 month-old daughter Gemma and, for the first time, she is sticking her tongue out too, watching him intently, and copying.  It’s a light-bulb moment for Lee and a real moment of connection between father and daughter. The work he has been doing with his Barnardo’s support worker to improve his understanding of Gemma’s needs is really paying off. His baby is connecting and responding to him, and it feels great. These kind of activities, based on cutting-edge neuroscience research, tells us that a child that is well connected to their main carers, and feels safe and responded to, experiences better brain development in the first few years of their life. It is a light-bulb moment for me too, as high level policy becomes something that makes a practical difference to a parent and child.

I am at one of Barnardo’s Scotland’s early years family support services, where we are testing ways that we can translate the key messages from neuroscience and attachment theory into practical activities that every parent can do to promote the healthy development of their children. Getting this far hasn’t been easy for Lee, but the next step is probably the most challenging. Using the same approach, his support worker will work with him to understand the impact on Gemma, when he comes home intoxicated, out of control and shouting at her Mum.  And we know, from previous work with parents in similar situations, that as Lee connects the theory, his own experience of his often violent father and his feelings for his daughter, that when the question comes – ‘you love your baby, why would you do that?’,  he’ll understand the effect of the emotional environment on her development. Over the coming months, we’ll keep on believing in Lee, he will expand on the success he’s had connecting with Gemma and hopefully, together, we’ll break what has become a cycle across generations.

Across the political spectrum, and across the public and third sector workforce, in Scotland, there is a growing consensus about the importance of shifting to early intervention and preventative spending in our public services. This has been coupled with a growing recognition amongst policy makers of what has been known to neurological science for some time: that the first few years of a child’s life are fundamentally important to their health and wellbeing.

… high level policy becomes something that makes a practical difference to a parent and child.

This recognition hasn’t happened overnight, it has happened as a result of concerted effort and partnership-working from national and local government, the NHS and the third sector. From the Early Years Framework in 2008, via Prof. Susan Deacon’s Joining the Dots, the Christie Commission’s focus on early intervention, and now the work of the Early Years Collaborative, there have been lots of steps on the way. Scotland is on a journey, and whilst we have made significant progress, we still have a huge amount to achieve together, before we realise the ambition of making Scotland the best place to grow up.

The Early Years Collaborative was kick-started by the Scottish Government in 2011 as a multi-agency quality improvement programme. What makes it exciting is that it focuses on creating collectively-owned stretch aims or targets, and on rolling out what we know works. People from different organisations are brought together to focus on actions that will make a difference to Scotland’s most pressing problems - poverty, inequality and some of the shortest life expectancies in the western world. It is the space for us to turn policy into practice which really improves lives.

At Barnardo's Scotland we’ve been making changes in what we do, thinking about our contribution to meeting the Early Years Collaborative aims, and challenging ourselves about what the evidence and science say we should be doing. We want to focus our finances where we can achieve the biggest impact, and that is why we have made our early years services a priority for the donations that we receive from the public. But the impact of our focus on the early years is most apparent in the way in which the average age of the children that we are supporting with our family services has decreased significantly. This has forced us to think about how we cast our net further, to reach the vulnerable families that can benefit from our services before they hit crisis point. We’re working closer with communities, and we’re supporting those who’ve benefited from our services to act as mentors and ambassadors, so that children and families can get help much earlier and we can build skills and knowledge amongst parents in communities.

… Our programme of change though, hasn’t just been about what we do that’s new, it’s been about using new research evidence to inform our work

Our programme of change though, hasn’t just been about what we do that’s new, it’s been about using new research evidence to inform our work developing supportive, challenging and transformative relationships with the adults and children we engage with. We now have scientific evidence that gives us the empirical support to take forward something that has profound consequences for how we design our services – it’s not the specific programme or intervention that makes the biggest difference, but the people delivering it and the relationships they build with the people they support. It’s about how our staff work with Lee, and parents like him, to translate complex scientific research into straight forward messages and behaviours that make the most difference to babies and children.

Although we want to focus our work on the early years to maximise impact, we still believe passionately in the need to support children of all ages. There is a danger that the arguments are misused, to somehow say that we should stop doing work with children beyond the age of 5. But that misunderstands the amazing resilience of the human spirit, and its ability to overcome adversity, as well as misunderstanding the brain science, which provides the evidence that the brain goes on developing well into adulthood.

We’ve still got a long way to go, and it hasn’t all been easy, but we believe we’re making progress in changing what we do in the early years. We’re excited about what we are learning, and we are excited by the opportunities that the Early Years Collaborative brings for Scotland’s children. The core principles that we are grappling with – focussing our finance on early years, reaching out to communities, utilising the scientific evidence and supporting staff to focus on the importance of relationships in their work – are no doubt the same challenges facing others in the third sector and public sector. If, together, we can get on top of them, then we will be on our way to making Scotland “the best place to grow up”.

After years of scientific reports and policy papers, this is how, in the early years sector, we are turning evidence into action that will make a real difference for people like Lee and Gemma. The wider question is – what more can we do to make it happen in other parts of the public sector?

Mary Glasgow is Assistant Director Children’s Services for Barnardo’s Scotland

By Mary Glasgow, Assistant Director Children's Services, Barnardo's

Issue 8: January 2014

Issue 8: January 2014


Smart Cities: Smart Services: Smart Working Editorial

In focusing on 'Smart Cities' let's start with a few teaser questions (answers at the foot of this column)...


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