28 Aug 2015

Interview with Tam Baillie, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People

In this interview we talk to Tam Baillie, who is Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People. He was one of our speakers at our national conference in May 2015, but very sadly had to withdraw at short notice. We were extremely keen to learn from his perspectives on engaging people in the decisions made about them, so the next best thing we could do was interview him!

1. Let’s start with the basic philosophy that underpins both your work and ours: the idea that those affected by decision-making should have a core role within the process. What do you find are the challenges and opportunities of doing so with children and young people?

I think even as recent as ten or fifteen years ago, you’d have to argue about people affected by decisions having an active role in them. For instance I previously managed a social inclusion partnership for children leaving care, and I had to argue for young people to be represented on the board. Nowadays there is much more of an assumption that you take on board the views of those affected. There is also a much wider breadth and scope of engagement in governance too.

Having said that, there are still lots of challenges – I see lots of examples of children being asked their views in schools, social care, youth clubs, and so on, and it can range from tick box exercises to being really meaningfully engaged in terms of the direction of work.

2. Do you find children and young people recognise when they’re being engaged in a mere tick box exercise as opposed to full engagement?

Most times there’s a sense of gratitude rather than viewing the engagement as being a right. Though the older ones often sense an inherent value that they should all be embraced in decision-making, and can sense when it’s not for real.

Another challenge is that children and young people often give views and opinions that are very challenging in terms of what you might want to hear. Such views can be unusual or intuitively wrong but might in fact be very refreshing. Of course, engagement means you’re not obliged to go along with everything, but you certainly should take views into account

One final point is that children and young people are just like any other group – there are different views and opinions and they’re not always congruent. There is not “a view” but a range of views, and that is what makes them reasonable to work with, because their views are not dogmatic.

Recently I was giving evidence to the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education, and was punting the line about listening and including. One of the commission members said that it reminded them of an experience in their local authority where one school was due to close and another school was taking the pupils in. Both sets of parents were upset – one because they didn’t want their school to take in children from the smaller school, and the other because they didn’t like losing their own school. However, when they asked the pupils in both schools they found they were in favour of the proposals, yet their views would have been overshadowed by those of the parents, if it had been left with the parents – and they were more reasonable.

3. You presumably work with a variety of agencies, including teachers, the government and of course the diverse population of children and young people themselves and their representatives. Is creating a shared vision easy when there are potentially so many different people round the table?

Yes and no. Yes, because there’s an increasing acceptance of engagement – why wouldn’t you ask for different views? No, because the challenge is in how you get those views into governance structures. It’s about representativeness – you can’t have absolutely everyone represented.

Some in government, for instance, are wary about direct engagement in consultation and will often farm it out to specialist agencies because of their contacts with children and young people. However, we’ve been encouraging the government to think big on this, and are pressing for a Scottish strategy for engagement of children and young people. I’d be disappointed if we didn’t end up with a set of principles that could guide how agencies work. There is some good practice out there, but it’s often piecemeal, led by those especially passionate.

It’s always a challenge to get a shared vision – it’s hard enough to get professional leaders to share it, though often even harder to get consistent implementation on the ground.

4. Do you find that children and young people have sufficient skills and knowledge to engage with all these processes and agencies?

The starting point is that children and young people have amazing capacity – but to realise that capacity we have to support them and give them space to blossom. I’ve seen examples of folk from extremely difficult, traumatising circumstances that have really made a big difference when given support. If children and young people see the potential to make a difference, they’ll go for it.

Here’s one example – Who Cares? Scotland have young people who tell powerful stories, but they put them across in a way that isn’t to gain sympathy, but to say that they are interested in systemic change and their stories can make that impact. It’s less about policies and more about powerful individual stories.

5. Earlier this year you produced a report that found that where pupils played a role in running things and making decisions, their academic performance was better. Were you expecting that conclusion?

Everyone is always interested in the link between poverty and poor academic achievement. But I wasn’t interested in a report that tells us more of the same. I was more interested in asking “In what circumstances do students thrive and attain?” We know that the answer includes an element of leadership, the quality of teaching, and the culture of continuous professional development. But we also know from OFSTED research in England that there’s something about the level of participation and engagement with pupils that makes the difference.

In fact, I was going to talk about this in my presentation to your conference. There had been a study into this in twelve schools in England and we replicated this in Scotland.

We got statistical data from the Scottish Government, and did analysis to find ones from poor socio-economic areas that were bucking the trend in terms of outcomes. We sent researchers into a sample of them to find out whether there was evidence of participatory involvement. The researchers deliberately did not talk to staff – just to the pupils.

They asked about what made this school different, a good place to go to. What shone through was the quality of the relationships between pupils and school staff, based on mutual respect, as evidenced by their engagement in running things and making decisions. There were good support systems to ensure students could express views, and that they would be taken on board, and the schools were responsive to suggestions and giving an equal say in key matters.

From my perspective the engagement in schools isn’t just a good thing in itself because of a sense of democracy and self-worth, but it manifests itself in terms of higher attainment and achievement. So we’re telling government that they should be looking at schools’ culture and ethos because that will affect relationships, and that in turn could affect attainment.

That said, we can’t claim cause and effect from such a small sample, but it was an interesting finding and mirrors the original example from England.

6. The report also talks about the benefit of pupil engagement in the where, when and even what of learning. What are the implications for training and supporting teachers to enable this to happen?

There was a recent report produced about the level of human rights and children rights input in initial teacher training in Scotland. It found that it was very patchy and not given the priority that the authors felt it should have done. There are a lot of calls made on teacher training because we expect a lot from teachers, but an awareness of children’s rights would stand them in good stead in terms of engagement with their pupils and a mutually beneficial relationship with them. There should be a change of culture that children’s rights are not a stick to beat up teachers but are intrinsic to the good working of a school.

UNICEF’s Rights-Respecting Schools scheme has a widespread sign-up in Scottish primary schools. The target in Scotland is 50% of schools designated as rights-respecting, but some of that might be variable practice depending on the enthusiasm of the head and involved staff. Generally, though, they are properly turning their attention to children’s rights and I’ve seen some great examples of this.

I’m also interested in how we achieve an impact beyond schools – for instance, how best can the Scottish Parliament engage children and young people? And what sparqs does is a continuation of what I see as a flourishing of increased knowledge, awareness and understanding of children’s rights right through the learning experience. So it’s appropriate that sparqs starts to look at what it might offer to later school years in transitions.

Thanks to Tam for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.

This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.

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