by Diane Delaney
This should be a celebratory blog about the success of the Give Them Time Campaign. We’ve achieved our stated aim of funded school deferral for all eligible four-year-olds, and since reading the Ipsos independent evaluation of the pilot scheme we should be shouting about all our successes. But our campaign has alerted us to issues we didn’t dream of when we set up Give Them Time five years ago.
Since then, we’ve learned a great deal about local and national government procedures – and about deeply-embedded bureaucratic assumptions on the subject of ‘parental engagement’ in children’s education. We’ve learnt that parents – families – are often the only stakeholders not invited to meetings, not provided with a seat at the decision tables. They’re also the stakeholders who are last to hear about what is happening, and who are told when (indeed, if) they are allowed to ‘engage’ or become ‘involved’.
A successful grassroots campaign?
You can read the story of Give Them Time in Upstart’s book Play is the Way. Our chapter tells how we rallied parents across Scotland to investigate their legal rights, discovering that many were given inaccurate information and required by local authorities to write statements, give evidence, find supporters and have their fate decided by a panel of highly-paid professionals who’d never met the child before. We explain how – when local authorities wouldn’t listen to our case – we took to it to the Minister for Children and Families who did take it seriously. And how, in October 2019, a motion was passed in the Scottish Parliament to fund deferral of all eligible four-year-olds, starting in August 2023.
But that chapter was written in 2020 – and a lot has happened since then. A pilot scheme was launched to monitor the impact of this change in the law. It was planned to last nearly three years, with some local authorities automatically funding all applications for deferral, and would be independently evaluated.
A Deferral Working Group was launched, consisting of local authority officers and representatives of the Scottish Government, the Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland.
Alarm bells immediately started ringing! Why were no parents invited to be members of the Deferral Working Group? There are two nationally-recognised reputable bodies supporting and representing parents in education (the National Parent Forum Scotland and Connect) but neither was contacted. And then, of course, there was us – the Give Them Time Campaign, the main body representing parents in the campaign for funded deferral. We had access to information about the experiences of many hundreds – perhaps thousands – of families. But no. We weren’t invited either.
Children at the centre?
Meanwhile the Covid-19 pandemic was raging. The effects of lockdowns, school closures and access to health and social services were unprecedented and catastrophic for many families. During this period, membership of our group skyrocketed – many families could see the developmental implications for their young children. But the attitudes in many local authorities seemed to get worse. Of course, the pandemic was terrifying but, rather than offering more support to parents and families, LA officials seemed to be constantly pushing them away.
“We are all in the same boat,” said one senior official in an email to a parent, explaining why they were not interested in a child’s problems. “All children have had the same experience,” said another. Even the Cabinet Secretary for Education, John Swinney told parents not to defer at the peak of the pandemic.
We kept going, supporting parents and professionals and campaigning to get it right for children, for decisions to be made in the best interests of children, for children’s rights to be upheld consistently.
We also waited patiently to become more involved with the Deferral Working Group. At last, we were invited to attend a meeting in July 2021 as ‘an agenda item’. It was all very polite and tokenistic, but we were nevertheless excited, honoured and looking forward to the next steps… They didn’t come.
Resounding silence and an independent report
Roll forward to early 2023, and we’d received no communication from Scottish Government or the Deferral Working Group regarding updates on the pilot scheme or the evaluation. We were still receiving emails about dreadful experiences, not just from parents but now increasingly from local authority employees, concerned about what’s happening in their authority. These especially related to the lack of effective communication on the forthcoming change in the law and the sometimes negative narrative that not all children deserve this automatic funding.
So, our campaigning continued, and we went on requesting meetings, both locally and nationally. Eventually – to our relief and gratitude – the Education, Children and Young People Committee of the Scottish Parliament became involved. They wrote to all 32 local authorities asking what they were doing to support and communicate to parents about the law change. The response was as we expected: some LAs replied, some didn’t, and the quality of information varied from excellent to dreadful. No change there, then.
And then, on 1st June 2023 the independent Early learning and childcare funding: pilot evaluation report was published. Finally, there was validation and vindication for Give Them Time. The Ipsos report repeats practically everything we’ve said over the five years of our campaign. Their evaluation reports multiple positive outcomes and impacts in the short- to medium-term of funding all deferrals for eligible four-year-olds. It reports a huge improvement on the previous discretionary deferral process, which was inconsistent, stressful, and degrading to parents and families, often ending with parents having to force their four-year-old child to school in the context of concern.
The report also highlights key recommendations that align with our campaign calls to action including:
- Communication for parents needs to be improved: formats should meet their needs; information should be timely, well in advance of transition to primary one; there should be clearer instruction and guidance about processes and procedures both about deferral and transition; there should be more positive use of language, and a more balanced approach to information about benefits and experiences when a child is deferred for a year
- Training of ELC staff is necessary to increase knowledge, understanding and therefore confidence in supporting parents by providing information, engaging in a balanced discussion, and supporting decision making in a non-judgemental manner
- Improved and clearer deferral processes are necessary, including a review of timings.
The publication of the pilot evaluation coincided with the Final Report of the National Discussion and Audit Scotland’s report on the delivery of 1140hrs of childcare from local authorities. What a week for children, parents and families! Triangulation of evidence from multiple sources, repeatedly giving the same message:
- local authorities are not doing enough to engage, involve and support parents as children’s primary educators, and the people who know those children best
- parents need more information, in formats conducive to their needs, in a timely manner.
We are proud that our campaign has been a success, and that this week we are celebrating three sources of evidence pointing to our campaign calls to action. But we remain cynical about the role of local authorities. It’s a huge concern that – despite GIRFEC and the UNCRC – they needed legislation to force them to do what is best for children. We watch with bated breath to see if LAs will continue their ironic, contradictory, and hyperbolic position about ‘parent engagement’ at local level.
Once again, as parents, we wait. We cannot force ourselves into the decision and policy making rooms. Our experience has been that the ball is never in the parent tennis court. Indeed, parents are not allowed the ball; we don’t have one. We have to wait until it is given to us. So now we await the next serve from our newly appointed Education Secretary on how she will not only change the narrative about the role and value of parents, but also change the culture. Will she ensure that there will never again be a working group about legislation regarding children and families that does not have parents and families sitting on it?
Getting it right for every child means getting it right for families too. No progress can be achieved when decisions are made about us, without us.