As the Children’s Parliament calls for ‘unfearties’, Claire Lightowler reflects on what it means to be brave when working to create a brighter future for Scotland’s children and young people.
‘A nest of unfearties’. Those of you who know that phrase will recall it within Edwin Morgan’s poem articulating his hopes and ambition for the Scottish Parliament on the opening of the new purpose built building in 2004.
“Open the doors! Light of the day, shine in; light of the mind, shine out!”
That poem has always followed me about somehow, hearing it first at that opening of the Parliament as a PhD student focusing on policy-making and devolution in Scotland and Wales. It has stayed with me, as I started working in roles that focused on improving practice and policy, the words challenging me and the difference I was making.
“A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want”
It’s not easy being brave, surely no-one is always brave? I started work as a junior member of staff in a big organisation and saw things that weren’t right, but I did not know how to challenge them effectively and appropriately. Seeing unethical behaviour from my ‘superiors’, no sometimes I wasn’t brave, sometimes I put off speaking out, sometimes I looked to support from others to help me speak up. It’s much easier to be brave when you have someone alongside you, or you have some power or some self-belief. Or you earn enough to be able to survive (for a bit) if you get sacked!
Along with colleagues from IRISS it was also this poem that we decided to recite at an international conference on evidence-informed practice (accompanied by photos of the new building), to give attendees a sense of the Scottish context in which we worked to affect change. I remember, though not sure anyone else noticed, holding back the tears as it was read out.
“We give you our deepest dearest wish to govern well, don’t say we have no mandate to be so bold”
That’s exactly what I felt, and still feel. Yep, govern us well please. It’s so important, particularly for those who are unsupported and suffering – the effects of poor governance are ever apparent.
It was the poem my husband selected to read at his father’s funeral, a man who spent his life campaigning for change. A powerful reminder of how short life is and how we’ve got to get on with it.
“So now begin. Open the doors and begin”
And last week I saw it referenced by the Children’s Parliament in their call for ‘unfearties’ to help children express their wants and needs, and speak up for them when they can’t. Brilliant. I want to be one. Who wouldn’t? I hope I meet their criteria. I hope they hold me to account for it.
But it leaves me wondering. Why are we sometimes not unfearties?
I’m writing this following a great discussion yesterday with colleagues from a range of organisations about the commitment to change the minimum age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12. I’ve previously written about how much this change is welcomed, but whilst yes it’s great, this change has taken decades and is a relatively small adjustment when we consider the age of prosecution – the age a child can be prosecuted in a Court – was changed to 12 way back in 2010.
When it came to it 96% of consultation responses were in favour of changing the age of criminal responsibility. Yes, 96%! I’d genuinely be interested to know if there’s been 96% support for any other policy change. And there was cross party support for the change. Victims organisations, the Police, third sector organisations, academics, think tanks, campaigning bodies, everyone right across the sector were in favour of it. An advisory group had worked away looking at the evidence, the more technical details of how a change could work, and what any implications would be.
Voices against the change were few and far between, and tended to come from the media, both print and social. Whilst I am completely aware that not everyone responds to a consultation, and that those working with and for children are not going to be representative of societal attitudes, we found no clear evidence of a lack of support. This has been the case for decades. So why did this change take so long?
My hypothesis is that there were people in the ‘system’ that were fearties. No offence intended. I genuinely appreciate how hard it sometimes is to advocate change. But I think there was an ingrained fear around about what the public ‘might’ think, not what the public does think. As I said, we had no evidence of that, but there was a fear that opening up discussion about children who commit offences would result in a public and political backlash.
So far we haven’t seen it. So perhaps that fear was misplaced? Perhaps there was a lack of knowledge about the age of criminal responsibility actually being eight? I don’t know. But is it possible that change did not happen for so long because of a fear of a bogeyman that didn’t really exist? What a tragedy if that’s true. How many children have got a criminal record that will affect their future lives just because we procrastinated too much, were too scared and just weren’t bold enough?
How many children today are being traumatised/re-traumatised going through Courts designed for adults (both as victims and accused)? How many are missing out on justice as they are in an adult system they just don’t understand? How many children are we locking up in young offender institutions because we fail to offer love, care and support to help them with their pain, trauma and mental health issues? And how many children still don’t get mental health support because they don’t meet the right criteria, or are taken off waiting lists just because they miss appointments rather than designing support around their needs and capabilities.
Our Children’s Parliament has echoed Edwin Morgan inspirational words. They are calling on us to be ‘unfearties’. I think we need a bit more, we need to build a nest of them! As we work away setting up a new Institute for Inspiring Children’s Futures, reflecting on vision, strategies and so on, a ‘nest of unfearties’ is perhaps one of the best descriptors of what we want to be, what we need to be, and what we should aspire to.
So come on, let’s begin!
About our blogger
As Director, Claire leads CYCJ in its work to improve children’s lives through improving policy, practice and knowledge about the issues related to offending by children and young people. Read more.