Published in the Scottish Review, 6 July 2016.
John Swinney is not for turning. Having been blinded by big data and so-called prevention science, he now describes organisations and people as ‘impediments’ to be overcome in the Scottish Government’s data-driven mission to ‘transform services’ and ‘improve outcomes’ for children.
At a conference held in Perth in March, he urged delegates to ‘aggressively challenge’ anyone who might disagree with using our children as lab rats in an unprecedented universal data grab. His impassioned plea might well have been made by Tony Blair in full-on social engineering mode.
At the national child protection summit in June, also in Perth, the deputy first minister accused those who had questioned the fitness for purpose of the named person scheme of politicising the murder of two-year old Liam Fee by his mother and her partner. Yet his own colleagues, including the first minister herself, have cynically used dead children, including Declan Hainey and Baby P, to score political points.
Then in a parliamentary debate on named persons the following week, the once mild-mannered Mr Swinney delivered a convincing impression of ‘Raging Bull’ when he shouted down a fellow MSP quoting directly from primary legislation passed in 2014. For many of us watching, it signalled a new low in Scottish politics, as elected members took it in turns to insult our intelligence by misrepresenting the ‘entitlement’ that is to be forced on every child in Scotland. Such behaviour used to be called dissembling.
According to published minutes of GIRFEC board meetings, and the pre-election blog of former children’s minister Aileen Campbell, the named person scheme was already operating successfully in Fife and other pilot areas by 2013. Supporters had long argued that lowering the risk threshold from significant harm to ‘wellbeing’ would allow for much earlier intervention and prevent low-level problems escalating to serious neglect, abuse and even murder.
Right up until the Fee verdict, the Highland GIRFEC pathfinder scheme was being hailed as an evidence-based blueprint for the named person and information-sharing provisions in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act, due to come into force in August. But the tune has since changed and we are now being told that the service ‘which was legislated for’ has never been trialled, or evaluated, in any area. It is hardly surprising the public are confused when government ministers and cheerleaders have consistently claimed the opposite over several years.
Reducing the attainment gap, improving wellbeing outcomes and getting it right for every child have all become familiar phrases in the new shared language of Scotspeak, even when falling standards and dead children suggest the transformational ‘journey of change’ is heading in entirely the wrong direction. It is surely perfectly reasonable for concerned citizens to ask why the government is putting data collection before child protection.
It is certainly legitimate to ask questions about the Devon-based Dartington Social Research Unit, which has been interrogating the innermost thoughts of school pupils in Renfrewshire, North Ayrshire, Perth and Kinross, Dundee and Angus via controversial questionnaires which have asked children as young as nine about carrying knives, taking drugs and suicidal thoughts. Most parents remain unaware of the nature of these school surveys, which were introduced to their children’s classrooms without their informed consent.
The determined data snatchers have already managed to acquire information from 46,000 children and 3,000 parents for crunching in their laboratory, at huge expense to the taxpayer. The richness of the data set is ‘unparalleled’, according to Louise Morpeth from DSRU, who shared a platform with Mr Swinney at the ‘Transforming Children’s Services’ conference in March, where she demonstrated her interactive portal of risk factors, wellbeing indicators and profiles of need that would help ensure better outcomes for children, or more accurately, the government’s pre-determined outcomes for children.
‘It is possible to gather high-quality data about the wellbeing of children in a quick and affordable fashion’, she enthused, while reminding delegates that ‘data is a means to an end and must change what we do’. Since there is no new money, the only way to derive impact is to shift spending and decommission existing services, she said. Front-line staff might argue that tinkering with the child protection threshold is a sure-fire way to derive the wrong sort of impact.
Perthshire parents asked searching questions about Dartington’s Evidence2Success surveys, with particular reference to parental consent and inappropriate content, but they were serially fobbed off, no doubt filed under ‘i’ for impediments. After a few minor amendments to the questions and a name change to ChildrenCount, the survey steamrollered on regardless.
A retired consultant physician noted that the ethics committee used to vet the project had consisted mainly of retired members of SRU. He wrote in the Scottish Review at the time: ‘Ethics committees should also concern themselves with the likely validity of the project, especially if the purpose is to ultimately change how child wellbeing might be managed in the future, including early intervention’.
Others questioned the reliability of the data, some of which suggested the majority of children from a highly regarded village primary school were indulging in drug-taking due to misunderstanding a question about ‘bubbles’. Several children were distressed after taking the survey, and parents objected to classtime being interrupted by an exercise in intrusion into private family matters.
John Swinney has repeatedly re-affirmed his government’s drive to break down barriers between services, alluding to ‘universally accepted’ research evidence. A ‘unified, national endeavour’ is required to effect culture change and create a new collaborative environment, he said at the March conference. The challenge was to deploy effective interventions ‘to secure the best prospects for children’s wellbeing’, not forgetting those all-important economic outcomes.
Delegates were also urged to ‘pretty intolerant’ of dissent from any quarter and to feel empowered to take forward the non-negotiable agenda for change, which had been collectively agreed without most of us ever hearing about it. The most important issue for the deputy first minister was ‘how we can get it right for every child in our society’, which presumably includes every child living in circumstances as dire as those in which Liam Fee was left unprotected. Getting his priorities right and adequately resourcing over-stretched social work services would unquestionably deliver better outcomes for the most vulnerable children. It might even meet with universal public approval, unlike delving into the private life of every family via the named person scheme.
Given the new narrative surrounding the status of named persons in so-called pilot areas – all now said to be voluntary and consent-based, despite parents’ experiences that prove otherwise – claims of the scheme’s operational success are clearly overblown. Why test drive a Super Mini if you are planning to buy a fleet of two-tonne trucks? As for the named person, the only tried and tested comparator is the scheme which was scrapped in the Isle of Man due to a meltdown in social services and is currently the subject of a public inquiry.
When it comes to that most vital of public services, child protection, social work professor Sue White’s comments on the Baby P blame game apply equally to little Liam: ‘The danger comes from those who believe strongly in their own wisdom and that they alone can drive social work down the royal road. They promised us a safe 4×4 in which to navigate a primrose path, but we’ve ended up down a muddy track in a Reliant Robin. Let’s get out and walk’.
While we’re at it, let’s also put a ‘v’ for vulnerable in GIRFEC, decommission the data snatchers and pump the savings into front-line services and targeted interventions, which will help keep children safe, and alive.