After two years of working with the Champions Board in South Ayrshire and completing my degree I was ready for a new start in a big city. I left the countryside where I had spent ten years with my foster family and another three living on my own and moved to Berlin, as I have a real love of street art and Berlin is such a creative city. Soon I began to miss the connection I had in Scotland to my roots and the people I once supported. Berlin meets a lot of the needs that South Ayrshire does not but fighting for the rights of care experienced young people is my fight. I felt frustrated and it seemed so unlikely that I would ever be able to connect with it meaningfully again.
So much of my experience of working at the Champions Board was with minimal tech investment or very slow development. South Ayrshire is a small community where face-to-face interaction beats all else. Being based in a local government office meant I had no accessible Wi-Fi, very old hardware, and restrictions to software usage. With changing priorities every four years it can be difficult to see the big picture of investing in expensive tech tools and worn out hardware was not high on the list of priorities for budget spending.
During the first lockdown my heart sank as I thought about how Champions Boards all over Scotland would be struggling to maintain connection with young people. I thought mostly about individual young people and anecdotal stories of people living in rural Scotland without reliable internet connection. I thought of the young people who had to choose between heating and a data plan for their phone. I thought of the leaps and strides Champions Boards and other services have made over the years in their connection and humanising of the care system and suddenly it felt as though it was all to be lost.
In October 2016 the First Minister made a promise to do a thorough investigation to discover what care experienced young people need from the Scottish Government. The Care Review heard over 5,500 experiences. Over half were children, young people and adults who had lived in care. The rest were families and the paid and unpaid workforce.
There has always been an air of fear around children's services and the use of technology. I have heard it often in the context of data sharing. There were many horror stories with detrimental outcomes from around the time of the Data Protection Act. It's no good burying our collective heads in the sand - it puts young people at risk if we do not stay up to date with the technology they will inevitably come into contact with.
At the end of the recent Scottish Care Leavers Covenant Alliance report themed around supporting care leavers in Scotland during the pandemic and beyond they offer recommendations.
"Digital Inclusion Digital connection must be regarded as a right, and the principle of 'assumption of entitlement' must apply here. Corporate parents at local and national level must work together to ensure that there is a national and strategic solution to ensuring that all care leavers have the required technology and are supported and funded to access to broadband and internet provision."
To see digital inclusion as a right leaves me hopeful. I am happy to see this being prioritised in this way and am looking forward to witnessing a new tech friendly and tech literate care world. Not only helping young people access tech tools but also to take advantage of technology in campaigning and information sharing in creative ways.
Claire Burns from CELCIS wrote an article for Holyrood magazine supporting exactly this. She recognises that we know what support young people need and what is needed now is backing at national and local levels. She asserts that applying the 'assumption of entitlement' principle and supporting digital literacy will allow all care experienced young people to have the "competence and confidence to be fully included." I love the way she phrases this here.
As we know, care experienced young people have some of the worst outcomes out of all children in Scotland. It was a fact I felt weighted down by during my time at the Champions Board. A CELCIS report Bridging the digital divide for care experienced young people in Scotland: If not now, when? affirms that poor internet access leads to poor outcomes for every population.
"Those who do not use the internet are likely to: live less active lifestyles; have poorer mental health; and feel less socially connected to their local area than those who do have internet access – even after all other demographic and socioeconomic factors are taken into account"(White, 2016).
How can it be denied that digital participation is an increasingly important way of contributing to the positive development of some of the most disadvantaged young people in our population?
A small amount of focused and reliable technological know-how can empower anyone to make moves to improve their situation tremendously.
"Digital connection and inclusion should be available as a basic right for all."
Who Cares? Scotland also highlights some of the digital poverty issues young people were experiencing during lockdown. Their report talks about lack of equipment, hardware and internet access. It also mentions the gap in some young people's computer literacy or confidence in completing tasks online. This reflects the results in the CELCIS report Bridging the Digital Divide which includes diverse accounts of the experiences of young people. Having to attend Children's Hearings and other meetings online adds another layer of uncertainty to already challenging periods for young people.
The results are in and the evidence is clear. It suggests a need for creative and daring solutions to demystify and educate ourselves about tech for our own sake and for the people we support. Participation and inclusion was never easy and now we are faced with an even more gargantuan challenge.
I feel very lucky and excited for the future though. Even though care experienced young people rate so poorly when compared with their peers in almost every possible measurable outcome, we come with buckets of creativity!
We have the evidence - stories from the people directly impacted.
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