by Diane Delaney
Imagine standing at the top of a towering skyscraper near the coast, gazing out of the window. What can you see? The vast expanse of the sea, the distant horizon, picturesque islands …. Now, picture yourself in the same skyscraper but on the ground floor. What do you see? A neglected park, an array of residential structures – but notably absent is the sight of the sea…
What does this mean? Does the sea exist if one can’t see it? How does anyone establish the boundaries of their understanding, especially if they can’t see or haven’t experienced what another has?
Now consider a child seated in a classroom, each moment shaping their perceptions and experiences. What is their reality, and does it mirror that of their teacher? What happens when a parent enters the classroom—does their reality align with the child’s or the teacher’s? Whose version of reality takes precedence in these interactions?
The Give Them Time campaign – made up of families of young children – managed to change the law at national level. It was agreed that parents’ assessment of their four-year-old children’s needs should trump those of local authority officers who often had not even met the children concerned.
However, back in their local communities, many families still find their views about what’s best for their child are not heard or valued. As we celebrate and move towards our fifth anniversary as a campaign group, we ask you to join us in pushing for the voices, views and contributions of parents and families to receive the credibility they deserve.
What is the truth? And who should hold the power?
So what does constitute the truth? Should we rely solely on the tangible and observable, or on our own feelings and lived experiences? These may sound like questions in a philosophy tutorial, but they were relevant when parents tried to justify their child’s need for funded deferral of school entry. Often the lack of observable or tangible ‘evidence’ from a parent resulted in local authority officers saying a four-year-old was ineligible for discretionary funding.
Indeed, for decades, access to discretionary deferral funding in certain local authorities has hinged on parents’ ability to provide evidence, which was then subjectively evaluated (according the undisclosed criteria) by individuals whom the parents never met. As a result, a four-year-old child would be forced to transition to primary school against the wishes of the family (and in some cases professionals too) because they could not afford the fees to defer.
Yet when parents sought evidence from local authorities regarding their decision-making process, or requested involvement in panel meetings about discretionary deferral, they were rebuffed. Basically, parental contributions to their children’s assessments held no weight or power, while the conclusion and assessments of the local authority were to be accepted without question.
We can however provide plenty of evidence that LA decisions were wrong. The needs of many four-year-olds who were inappropriately required to transition to school could not be met in a primary classroom, resulting in drastic impacts on the child and family – often with long lasting consequences. It has effects for schools too – our campaign has also been contacted by primary teachers and head teachers asking if a child can be removed from Primary One and returned to early learning and childcare.
Trust or bureaucracy?
In the end, it comes down to trust. Since the Give Them Time campaign communicated with parents through social media, we often remained strangers for months. Why should these parents share insights, experiences and information with us, when they didn’t know us? But they did. Why should we accept their truths and realities? But we did. When we took their complaints to Parliament why should MSPs from all political parties trust our evidence and parental contributions? The MSPs did not know us personally, yet they endorsed our perspectives and our campaign.
Our campaign changed the law. All eligible four-year-old children can now automatically access funding to defer. This is remarkable and proud achievement. However, parents still struggle to assert their views and discussing their children’s health and wellbeing with local authorities and other public sector organisations.
To return to the metaphor with which I started this blog, a senior LA officer up at the top of the skyscraper is probably taking a long strategic view. S/he plays a pivotal role in shaping policies and services that directly impact on – and often hugely improve – the lives of children and families. And s/he develops bureaucratic procedures to deliver these policies.
Meanwhile, parents and families down at ground level are facing their own immediate reality. They know and understand it from lived experience and they need local authority officers to trust their experience and knowledge, and respond appropriately. But all too often, bureaucracy gets in the way and public money is spent on perpetuating bureaucratic procedures rather than responding to parents’ needs This disconnection between those in power and those seeking assistance is a glaring and continuing concern.
Working together for trust
To bridge the gap between those in powerful positions and the individuals they’re meant to serve, movements and campaigns that advocate for the rights of parents and families in Scotland need to collaborate and align their efforts. By consolidating their voices, concerns and demands, they could wield a far more powerful influence. This synergy would not only amplify their collective voice but also underscore the urgency of the issues at hand. It is a call for unity in diversity, a shared belief that the well-being of children and families should transcend political, regional, or ideological differences.
On our fifth anniversary we at Give Them Time are grateful for the trust of families and professionals. Thank you for sharing your experiences and knowledge with us. Thanks also to the MSPs who have changed one small aspect of the law. We can only hope that in the future parents and families will consistently be recognised as reliable, credible, and invaluable contributors to the discourse on their children’s needs and rights.