Children do visit the office of Scotland’s children’s commissioner, but not on a regular basis, so their redecoration work appears in the main to be a statement of intent. “The commissioner has taken a lot of stick for this door,” a member of staff confides.
Bold design is not the only thing Scotland’s pioneering children’s commissioner, Kathleen Marshall, has taken stick for in her five-year term, which ends on Friday.
The first of the UK’s children’s commissioners to leave office, Marshall has spoken out in several areas, sometimes not in quite the way one might expect. She has attacked the “risk-averse” culture around children’s safety and the bureaucracy around volunteering with children. Research she commissioned showed almost half of those questioned said they wouldn’t volunteer for fear of being accused of harming a child.
“We say we wrap kids in cotton wool, but I say, because we have become so fearful of them and for them, we wrap them up in barbed wire and put up a sign that says, keep out, don’t touch,” she says. “And that is not good for children because they can’t develop the relationships they need with adults who are going to nurture them.”
At the behest of children she was consulting with, Marshall included the word “love” in a leaflet for children in care about what they should expect. She recounts getting an official letter saying: “Love is not a word we use here in Glasgow and it is not something we expect of our care workers or our residential workers.”
“Perhaps we shouldn’t use the word because it has some other connotations,” Marshall says, “but it is what the young people come back to again and again. I worry that we are so busy running round filling in forms and checking up on everyone and worrying about stuff that we are not giving young people the time they need to build relationships when what they really long for is people who really care about them.”
This passionate speech is not what one might expect at first sight from Marshall, a quietly spoken ash-blonde in her mid-50s with glasses and a scholarly air. But she has strong views. At one point during her tenure, she accused the Home Office of “terrorising” the children of failed asylum seekers by arresting and detaining them.
At that point, senior politicians were calling for Marshall’s resignation, but she fought on, the highest-profile supporter of a campaign that saw school students and groups of residents of run-down Glasgow housing schemes gathering to foil the immigration police’s dawn raids. Last year, her office led the UK’s joint report by the four children’s commissioners to the UN and she points with pride to some strong recommendations on the treatment of child asylum seekers, which the UK has said it will implement.
Although she has not quite finished what she wanted to do, Marshall says she never wanted to feel she was “going for a second term” as commissioner, as it would have compromised her independence.
After qualifying as a solicitor, Marshall was a stay-at-home mother for 11 years, before returning to work as a volunteer at the Scottish Child Law Centre in 1988. There, she became radicalised on the subject of children’s rights, eventually becoming the centre’s director.
As children’s commissioner, Marshall and her team have produced a number of lucid and informative reports and reviews. Marshall has directed her legal mind for the most part not at the law but at the treacherous territory where law, policy and practice collide, sometimes known as real life.
Handle With Care arose from a severely disabled girl in a wheelchair in a mainstream school telling Marshall that she spent her days in discomfort as her special needs assistants refused to alter her position in her chair on health and safety grounds. An investigation found that moving and handling was a problem for many disabled children in mainstream schools, with some parents saying their children spent all their time with adults as other children were not allowed to push wheelchairs for health and safety reasons. The commissioner’s report to the Scottish parliament concluded that there is no problem with the law except ignorance of it, but that policy and practice need work. “Reality does not match up with rules. The rules are made up out of papers, reports and theories, not out of the way life works,” says one child quoted in the report.
The same young person has now dropped out of university and Marshall has arranged for her to present a paper on the reasons why to 70 civil servants.
Another report, Playing It Safe?, found that children in care playing outside were suffering from a similar “sense gap”, where staff, anxious to do their jobs properly, were refusing to let children go out on their bikes unless accompanied by a member of staff carrying a puncture repair kit and a first-aid kit. Similarly, a child near water – perhaps fishing – had to be tied with a rope to a member of staff or a tree.
“Ridiculous myths had arisen,” says Marshall. “The issue is that people are so afraid of going beyond their remit that they are desperate for guidance. In many cases, they take the best available so care workers were using old guidance for schools. Of course, if you are taking a group of school pupils on a cross-country cycle, it makes sense to have a member of staff on hand with a first-aid kit, but not if you are talking about a child going out from what is basically their home to play on a bike.
“We had a meeting with the Health and Safety Executive, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and some private insurers – the people who get blamed for all this – and they all said it was nonsense. So we thought, if we can get some guidance out that has all our stamps on it, that might be a way of putting some of these myths to rest.”
Marshall is trying to create a mind shift whereby this kind of overprotection is recast as an abuse of children’s rights under the UN Rights of the Child.
“Children have a whole spectrum of rights and by being so risk-averse [adults] can be breaching the children’s rights. Being risk-averse is not a neutral stance because it may be in itself damaging. If a child in care isn’t allowed to stay the night at a friend’s house unless the whole family consents to be disclosure-checked, that may interfere with her ability to build friendships.”
Priorities for the next five years will be up to her successor, but Marshall is keen to promote the notion of “added value”. The office should not be replicating the work of other groups. And it needs to be focused on reality. “We have some quite good law now, but we really need to keep our ears to the ground to find out how it is working in practice and see how we can improve that.”
Trying to change the culture that prevents children from playing outside is another big one. The commissioner’s team produces a “detective kit” for primary pupils to explore how children once played in their area. “Children often report, ‘Well, my granny did this but we wouldn’t be allowed to do that now.’ We have to start asking, well, why not?”
A current campaign, Yes Ball Games, is working to change the ease with which municipal signs banning them can be erected. This one is close to Marshall’s heart.
Asked if she played ball games as a child, she confesses that, although her father was the town clerk who signed the “No Ball Games” signs in her area, she did. “We would go over to the lock-ups near our house and play rounders. There was a ‘No Ball Games’ sign there signed by my dad, but we played anyway. Sometimes someone would come out of their house and say, ‘Can you not read?’ and we would scarper double-quick.”
For Marshall, the future is uncharted. She is looking forward to six months off at home and a trip in her camper van round Scotland. After that, she hasn’t yet decided.
But when she leaves the office for the last time on Friday, almost certainly through the fun door, it seems likely that Scotland’s children will not have heard the last of their first official champion.