2014 Referendum, Ashya King, Childcare, Childhood, Children, Democracy, Family, Freedom, Getting It Right For Every Child, Kenneth Roy, Liberty, Opinion, Politics, Scotland, Scottish Independence, The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, The Named Person
On the 30th August, Hampshire police obtained a European arrest warrant for the parents of a severely ill five-year-old boy who had been withdrawn from hospital and then spirited out of the country. I’m not going to clap an easy moral over the story of Ashya King and expect it to fit perfectly. This was a dramatic and high-profile international incident, and yet it is hard even today to dredge any certainties from its legalistic murk. Nonetheless, this much is apparent: two parents who had wanted better medical treatment for their child were hunted as if they were animals by the British state. This is a story in which everybody wanted the best for the tiny man but he ended up being incarcerated in a foreign hospital, forcibly separated from his family on the grounds that they were neglecting him.
Throughout this story the parents have needed to continually justify their innate authority, as parents, to the world. Were they fanatical Jehovah’s Witnesses, who selfishly prioritised their own mad beliefs over the health of their child? Or were they pushy parents, who were bent upon demanding some far-flung therapy which their child did not really need? Were they irresponsible? Did they lead the trusting British public on a dance? And how could the medical, police, and service-providing professionals have demonstrated a greater understanding when confronted with such difficult people?
Two days before Scotland prepares to determine its independence, it’s worthwhile pointing out that the same official suspicion of parental independence, and the same resort to cumbersome, expensive intervention is being presently rolled out across every community in Scotland. For just as there was once a Stone Age and a Bronze Age and an Iron Age, we’re now entering the Age of the Named Person. And it’s terrifying!
The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 guarantees a “named person” for every Scottish child. This person will be named by a health board or, for school-age children, the local authority, and they (and any successors) will remain at their post until the child is eighteen. Although the title appears to derive from that of the “named person” who traditionally represents the interests of the insane, this latest named person will merely, in the words of the government, provide “extra help” for children who face obstacles to achieving “development and wellbeing.”
Does this all sound a bit vague for the terms of an enforced contract over the care of your child? Thankfully, there are eight “indicators” of a child’s wellbeing: they need to be “safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible, and included.” The named person will only stir from their lair if your child is struggling to meet one of these carefully delineated indicators.
Anybody can be a named person for your child; anybody, that is, except for you. Yes, you are legally prohibited from assuming this role, even if you have more professional expertise about medicine or childcare than your child’s actual named person. As the Manifesto Club’s Josie Appleton has observed, “the named person’s claim to authority lies not in their training or special abilities, but merely in the fact that they have been named, appointed, by the state.” The named person is “usually” a health visitor or a senior teacher, although in unusual circumstances they may be the school janitor, Groundskeeper Willie. A named person might have never had children themselves – they might have never even changed a nappy before. Supposing that you don’t like the person named for your child – that you think that they’re odd or somewhat creepy. Alas, you’ve made the mistake of assuming that you can have any say at all!
Supposing that the named person makes serious accusations against you, which lead to your child being investigated by the authorities. Your child is a bit thin – a bit peely wally – and the named person suspects that you haven’t been feeding them properly. When informally questioned, your child gives evasive answers, which only confirms the named person’s suspicions. But supposing that it all turns out to be a mistake – that your child is just a bit thin and a bit peely wally. Well, in these circumstances it is unclear what redress you have against the named person or whether they can be even ousted from their role. You can presumably petition the local authority to assign a new named person, but any success on this front would reverse the intended balance of power. You can be sacked as the parent of your child, but you can’t sack the named person.
Reactions in the media have condemned named persons as “government spies” or “spies in the family home.” If the named person maintains a professional outlook, you will probably never notice that they are constantly monitoring you. There was a hitch during a pilot in the Highlands, when one named person sided with some teachers who were molesting an ME sufferer. The named person read an inflammatory comment on the child’s blog and then reported the child to the police (they were politely uninterested). This is an example of bungled or amateur childcare-espionage. Ideally, the named person is an invisible bureaucratic buffer within the family, one of the discreet checks-and-balances in the parent-child relationship. Yet their role has been also invented to designate a point of convergence for the various medical and educational service-providers. If you have ever heard that African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” the named person is the bureaucratic equivalent of a dispute-settling tribal elder.
You might judge this to deglamorise all of the wonderful ways in which children can be brought up. When I was a child, for example, I lived on a diet of Roald Dahl fantasies in which children were looked after by a Big Friendly Giant, a giant airborne peach which was inhabited by talking insects, and a glass elevator which was flown through space by a chocolate millionaire. This lot would be all sent packing by the named person. Childcare must now be standardised and subjected to quality control. There is the implicit definition of children whose care does not satisfy the eight wellbeing indicators as being potentially “vulnerable.” How children can grow up to be big and strong when any idea of their resilience is completely removed from the equation is a question yet to be answered.
What is so unpleasant about the named person is the insinuation that the majority of parents are suitable, whilst there are a minority who do not come up to government standards. But children are supposed to love their parents unconditionally, because such love is supposed to be unconditional. They are not customers who are receiving a service.
The Scottish government aims to have the named person scheme in place by 2016. They are in the process of recruiting five hundred new “health visitors” as the frontier generation of named persons. As Maggie Mellon and Kenneth Roy have reported for Scottish Review, local authorities in Perth and Dundee have lately conducted projects which collect personal information about schoolchildren without the explicit consent of their parents (for all of the recent tributes to social media, it is curious that some of the best Scottish internet journalism over the last year concerns childcare rather than #indyref). Roy has warned that the Dundee adventure, “feels like the next stage in a grand plan: the creation of a massive national database backing up the present administration’s intention to have a ‘Named Person’ for every child in Scotland.”
It’s easy to get swept up in the drama of the named person scheme. It looks unlikely to me, however, that the Scottish state will screw itself to this particular sticking point. There is too much opposition, with the policy being fought in the courts by angry Christian charities, and some eye-catching injustices already emerging from the pilots. The outlandish costs of implementing this scheme will only detract from the government’s admirably generous childcare budget. It will be hard to justify the named person scheme if this budget ever comes to be squeezed.
By arriving in the same year as the referendum, the named person scheme has two implications for #indyref. It firstly points to Scotland’s political immaturity; a powerful authoritarian ruling party has been able to get so far with such an unlovely policy only due to the absence of any functioning parliamentary scrutiny and opposition. It secondly points to the humbug of an SNP independence campaign which decks itself out in all the pretty language of democracy. An independent Scotland will, we are constantly told, finally get the governments that it votes for. With the named person scheme, the government will finally get the parents that it trains. Democracy is founded on the philosophical principle that we are free and equal to make decisions about our collective future. To deny this freedom in such an extravagant way is to invalidate the very basis of democracy itself.