Putting our money where our children’s mouths are: Understanding public spending on children’s wellbeing

June 11, 2020

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by Jackie Brock, Sophie Flemig,  Katherine Trebeck and Jen Wallace.


The middle of a pandemic may seem like a strange time to be talking about how we move money around the ‘system’ of public services and social security. There are pressing and urgent needs to be met, not least in terms of the basic needs of children who are affected by the loss of loss of opportunities to play and share meals with their friends in nurseries and other early years settings and the loss of income that many parents are experiencing, some temporary, some unfortunately more long term.

But one of the many truisms in this crisis is that it helps us see better what was wrong before. We knew that many children experienced malnutrition due to poverty; holiday hunger schemes had become a depressing new addition to community action. We knew that many children lived in homes where they didn’t feel safe. We knew many didn’t have access to technology, and those that did were not always safe and sound in the digital world. We knew all this. We talked about it a lot but it took  a pandemic to push it to the front pages of our newspapers and the front of our minds.

There will be many conversations about renewal  – no one has a claim to ‘own’ this territory – we have all been through this experience and we must all be part of the next phase. But today we are launching one project that we hope will contribute to better outcomes for children from now on. Children’s Wellbeing and the Scottish Budget is a project from the Children’s Sector Strategy and Policy Forum. It is managed by Children in Scotland with funding from Carnegie UK Trust and Cattanach. The research and analysis is being carried out by Dr Katherine Trebeck.

Those of you that follow the work of the Carnegie UK Trust on wellbeing will know that Scotland is a global leader in wellbeing, with a statutory duty to plan on the basis of wellbeing through National Outcomes (communicated through the National Performance Framework). But despite praise, many in Scotland lament the lack of impact. It can feel like rhetoric, with many examples of policies that do not seem to take account of the logic of balancing economic, environmental and social outcomes. Too often departments appear to continue to plough their own furrow. This is particularly the case in relation to spending on the early years of a child’s life. Health, education, social care, local services and third sector services all collide in a patchwork of plans and funding programmes.

The international wellbeing community looks to New Zealand for the answer on how to take the next step. Their celebrated Wellbeing Budget used what they know about social progress to target groups ‘left behind’ (including some of the most vulnerable children and families). Unlike traditional budget processes wellbeing budgeting makes a clear link between spend and the agreed societal outcomes. The challenge with this approach is that it still requires additional monies; discretionary spend which will be difficult to come by as we move into another tight fiscal settlement.

Instead, we are arguing for a more fundamental shift in how we think about budgeting for outcomes, one that focuses on life stages rather than categories of services. Rather than look at the additional spend available once all current activity is financed and then allocate that to the ‘best’ programme, we want to explore what happens when you look at the totality of spend on one population group. Our initial conversations suggest that even getting an answer to the question ‘how much do we spend on young children’ is complex and challenging. It is simply not how we think about public budgets and accountability.

Our project starts with the particular focus of a child’s first 1001 days within the Scottish budget. We will make recommendations on how to develop a life-stage approach to outcome-based budgeting in early 2021. Our understanding of how to achieve a budget for children’s wellbeing is at a very early stage. We hope that by following the public pound directly to our youngest citizens, we can better understand what we can do to make sure that, in future, our collective efforts to improve children’s wellbeing add up to more than the sum of their parts.


For more information contact Jen Wallace.