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102 JULY 2007
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The early days of a better nation ...

Mark Smith

This past couple of months have been important ones for Scotland. Elections to the Scottish Parliament took place in May. The parliament is responsible for the administration of most of the matters that effect the country on a day-to-day basis including education, social work and health, those departments within which Child and Youth Care functions would be delivered. The result was in many ways momentous; the Labour Party, which had held sway in Scotland for over 50 years was defeated by the Scottish National Party who have now formed a new government.

One of the features of the campaign was how it came to be based around and perhaps ultimately decided on a central theme of fear versus hope. The incumbent government based its case around the supposedly calamitous effects of voting for their opponents. The Scottish National Party countered that people would no longer be held back by the politics of fear, claiming that they offered a politics of hope. The tabloid press played mercilessly on a fear of change. Nonetheless, people voted, narrowly, for what the leader of the Scottish National Party identified as a triumph of hope over fear.

This hope-fear dualism seems to have important implications for the way we interact with kids. A political culture driven by and playing on people’s fears does one of two things: it makes us fearful of kids or fearful for them. Our fear of kids has been manifest here in Scotland in a raft of legislation to tackle what is labelled as anti-social behaviour. Increasing numbers of kids are being locked up; others are subject to a range of Orwellian surveillance measures, including electronic tagging to monitor their whereabouts, all done, of course, under the guise of offering them intensive support. One of the things that intrigues me is the way that politicians talk tough and then hide behind their latest policy initiative or technological innovation. They rarely have the guts to challenge kids directly or to take the time to build or allow others to build the kind relationships with them that would genuinely make a difference to their behaviours. Ultimately theirs is a cowardly approach, talking tough then handing over the responsibility for toughness to those who work directly with kids. Moreover, those doing the work usually have to do so with their hands tied behind their backs as a result of the latest political initiative.

When they've not been demonising kids, politicians in recent years have been making a big play of protecting them. Initiatives to “protect” children have often been as oppressive as those targeting their anti-social behaviour. Within a protectionist discourse, kids are denied agency in their lives, relying on adults to protect them from “threats” that range from internet paedophiles through abusing parents to fatty food and insufficient exercise. These precious children also have to stick in at schools, which are becoming increasingly like exam factories churning out compliant functionaries for the globalised economy. One of the things that worries me as a University teacher is just how de-politicised many students have become; none of your liberal education, creative thinking or change-the-world radicalism for the conservative impulses of a fearful state.

Personally I’m delighted by the possibilities that we might really get a politics of hope. I know I'll continue to be disappointed with many political decisions but there’s something to be said for such decisions being taken in a spirit of believing that you can make a difference, rather than in a niggardly state of trying to second guess and react to what the newspapers might say. There are analogies to be made here to Child and Youth Care. What brings workers into the job and sustains them in it is a belief that they are doing something useful and that they can make a difference in the lives of the kids they work with. They need to feel confident and hopeful as they go to their work day-to-day. Too often they go in fearful of the behaviour they will be confronted with and more fearful still over the lack of support given by their employing agency in dealing with this. So they look for solutions in the latest technical “fix”. But in truth few come into this work to undertake the latest risk assessment or to process kids through programmes designed to iron out what adults deign to be cognitive distortions. These are fearful ways of working. They say nothing about the hopes we have for kids. We have to hang onto those hopes and to the belief that we are doing something worthwhile. And we need to be supported in and feel valued in this rather than having armies of managers, inspectors and auditors ready to pounce as soon as something goes wrong.

One of the Sunday newspapers, the only one to welcome the election result, chose as its headline the strap-line of a piece written by a Scottish author: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”. I’ve put this up on my office wall. My hope is that Child and Youth Care workers will be allowed to work as though they live in the early days of a better nation.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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