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Posted 29/02/2012 | 2 Comments

In the last financial settlement agreed by the Scottish Parliament one budget line after another was reduced or frozen.  Did you notice that there were only two clear winners? There was more cash for universities and more loot for prisons.

Many of us have benefited from the liberating effects of higher education in providing us with social and financial mobility. We expect universities to continue transforming lives. But can we seriously expect higher education to do the heavy lifting to meet these expectations?

For large swathes of Dundee, Greenock, Glasgow and Lanarkshire you are much more likely to graduate to the jail than to Uni. Over a thirty-year period the percentage of the population getting a degree has shifted from 10% to 50%. Overwhelmingly the evidence points to new recipients of higher education coming from the homes of the next set of better earning parents.

Education in Scotland is a pill we take at four years of age and stop at 17 or 22 years of age. In Holland and Finland the culture and the state devotes so much more effort than in Scotland to supporting babies and pre-school children and their parents. As a consequence social mobility, social justice and educational attainment all gain.

Jukka Makela a psychiatrist at the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland explained to me how social exclusion is a big predictor of mental health problems as well as the more obvious predictor of poor educational performance.

Finland, a country, like Scotland, that has a love affair with booze and fatty foods, is wrestling with “avoidant” parenting.

In sensitive, secure parenting, parents tune into the messages and needs that come from babies and respond accordingly. They chatter, listen and play with their pre-verbal children. When babies get this sensitive care their capacity increases many times over.

The converse is also true. Babies, who are ignored, not listened to and whose parents behave in an absent or inconsistent way, have an insecure attachment and are significantly more stressed. Big stresses are found in children who appear uncontrollable and others who do not cry at all. These children are the product of avoidant parenting.

Autopsies of child victims of road accidents in Finland show that many of the children have furring of the arteries that cannot be explained, at that age, by diet alone. These children have led excessively stressful lives.

Jukka takes this a stage further by linking stressful babyhood to subsequent consumption of food and alcohol. Dopamine is the neuro-transmitter that provides biological feedback on rewards. A rush is given by sugars and alcohol. Children who have had avoidant parenting are not at ease with themselves or other children. As they get older, they self medicate, by eating or taking alcohol to cope with stress and anxiety. Distress, which the child did not learn to cope with or manage in their early years, plays out in destructive ways.

Alcohol and drug abuse, obesity and mental health problems are the expression of a set of adverse experiences in childhood.

Does this strike a chord here in Scotland?

Thanks to a Churchill Scholarship I visited Holland and Finland last year and have written a report Early Years and Transformational Change on why and what they do to support parents and babies.

In the past five years there has been a rush (or should that be a rash?) of strategies and frameworks about early years. In practice it has not improved what we do: Health Visiting services continue to be run down and most local authorities are diluting day care. As a nation we suffer from Implementation Deficit Syndrome at the very time when we need to be wisely investing public money to create a sensible forward march.

There are very practical steps that can be taken as Holland and Finland have shown. Already they are at the top of child well-being league tables and in both countries they are engaged in big shoves to improve what is already impressive support for babies and parents.

Meanwhile we spend more on universities and prisons. 

Comment By Comment
Ninian Stuart
Joined: 03/03/2012

Comment Posted: 03/03/2012 18:41
Many chords, Alan. Thanks for this. I don't know whether you have yet come across The Childrens' Parliament - but last week they launched a StreetsAhead mural that emerged from some powerful work that they've been doing with some under 12s in Glasgow - older than some of the children you speak of - but a powerful voice and statement from young children on some of these issues. Worth contacting Cathy McCulloch there if you don't know of their work. Best. Ninian
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Derick fae Yell
Joined: 21/04/2012

Comment Posted: 21/04/2012 16:55
So much sense in what you write.

Nordic Horizons have a forthcoming event in Parliament looking at the change in Finnish penal policy since the 1970s.

Finland has 59 prisoners per 100,000 of population; Scotland has 153

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