Susan Deacon, local parent, former MSP and health minister, is an advisor to the Support from the Start planning board, but also has a national role advising the Minister for education and lifelong learning about how Scotland can move closer to the vision of every child having the best possible start.
I was able to spend a good part of the day on Thursday accompanying Susan to a series of sessions with parents who use early years voluntary sector services in Mid & East Lothian. The aim of the sessions was for Susan to have conversations with parents of early years children about what they find useful as support, and what they see as issues. They weren’t ‘consultation’ sessions or ‘focus groups’, and were by no means scientific – they were simply conversations. Parents had the opportunity to tell their stories to a woman with considerable experience of how government and public service works, and a voice loud enough to be heard on a national stage. Susan had the opportunity to listen to, and ask questions of, people who had current first hand experience of being parents who were coping with difficult circumstances.
It was fascinating – belated apologies to the Woodburn Neighbourhood Planning Group, but I couldn’t pull myself away when the conversations over ran the allotted time.
These are my impressions from listening to the conversations
Firstly how incredibly generous people can be with their stories. I think this was partly testament to the fact that the parents who participated obviously had a lot of trust in the staff of the voluntary services which were the context for the conversations. However, I was also struck by how much many of the parents wanted to be able to contribute – to give back, and telling their stories was one way of doing that.
A theme that ran through all of the conversations was services seeing the whole person, not just the presenting problem or the assessed need. Parents wanted to be dealt with as people and not as problems. It was obvious that this was a quality of the voluntary sector services the parents were using that they valued very highly, and sadly it was often stated in contrast to experiences of statutory services.
Another and perhaps related theme was that the way services were delivered seemed to be just as important as what was delivered. In other words a friendly face, a welcome non judgemental manner, and perhaps above all a relationship with a trusted individual were valued by parents as much as the particular type or brand of support they received.
Self- help or peer support was also seen as very important – the opportunity to spend time with others in the same or similar situation was valued highly. This might be as simple as time over a cup of tea to chat, it might be a shared confidence building activities. It might also be the opportunity at the right time to offer support to somebody else, or to take on a helping role – fundraising, advocacy etc.
Another theme was about how people access services. Pride kept coming up as barrier to people actively looking for help – ‘I should be able to cope with this’, or, ‘people will think badly of me because I need help’. Parents valued highly services that reached out and smoothed the path into support and didn’t rely on people crossing the door on their own. There were many stories of how people felt that they had been ‘saved’ because someone had ‘helped them across the door’ or made it easier for them to start accepting support.
On the same theme of access was the importance of rapid support in a crisis, especially access to quality childcare envronments – I was particularly struck by stories of how events -social, psychological, financial and medical, mostly beyond our control can overturn lives often literally overnight, and leave us in a position where it is difficult to be the kind of parent we want to be. I was particularly touched by one woman’s story of having to deal with the acute illness of a loved one and trying to balance this against her desire to maintain the kind of stability she wanted for her small child. She recognised that the stress she was under, and the unpredictability of the demands of treatment, meant that her child was not getting the secure, stable environment she desperately wanted for it. By coincidence, a worker turned up on her door with the offer of a nursery place in a voluntary project that she had applied for before the illness of her loved one. She hadn’thought to ask for help, or been offered it, because of her situation, but the offer of support came as a ‘Godsend’. She feels this helped to provide the stability her child needed and allowed her to focus on dealing with the impact of illness without the additional guilt and stress. Who knows what that simple intervention saved in terms of stress and upset for the child and the parents, what did the alleviation of that stress save in terms of stress induced problems for the parents and child. Certainly her feeling was that both her and her child were ‘saved’ .
Almost all of the parents Susan spoke to stressed the importance of qualitychildcare, as the pre-requisite for making it possible for parents to get the support they need, and this was paticularly so where a child had additional needs. Many parents stressed how they felt their child had been ‘ brought on’ in terms of socialisation, language skills and emotional stability through access to the childcare offered by the services they were using.
Finally, I have been reading lots of information about the economic impact of investment in early years – for every £1 spent on early years £5-£7 can be saved from services that are not needed to address problems in later life. Anybody listening to the conversation Susan had with parents over the course of one day in Mid and East Lothian would have no trouble believing that research.
Many thanks to Stepping Forward, First Step & Dadswork for hosting conversations with Susan.