At our Managers’ Forum held in Stirling, Ben Farrugia from CELCIS delivered an insightful presentation into a Frameworks Institute report, produced in partnership with The Robertson Trust, CELCIS, and The Life Changes Trust, that considers how best to reframe the narratives around care within the public sphere.

‘Seeing and Shifting the Roots of Opinion: Mapping the Gaps between Expert and Public Understandings of Care Experience and the Care System in Scotland’ provides a comprehensive overview and analysis of the different cultural models that can be used to assess public perceptions of care experience and the care system. 

The report’s findings encourage us all to reflect on the narratives we create and perpetuate around care experience and the care system – and crucially, to challenge our own assumptions and biases. The language and framing that we use to criticise, appraise, or comment on the functions of the system plays a pivotal role in driving (or, indeed, inhibiting) progress in our collective mission to create a society where all young people can thrive.

Frameworks’ research highlights profound differences between expert and public perceptions of the ways in which the system is orientated, how stigma and early childhood trauma affects development, and the limitations of the care system. The ‘gaps’ as detailed below[1], demonstrate the vast amount of work that lies ahead for the sector in shifting public opinion.

Frameworks’ use of cultural models (the shared but implicit understandings, assumptions and patterns of reasoning)[2] enables us to identify the thought processes that have embedded the assumptions outlined in the above graphic and to map out modes of messaging that will effectively shift public opinion. The cultural model analysis was developed through 21 in-person and in-depth interviews from across Scotland. Each Cultural Model is grouped[3] into one of five broad categories of Adversity; Development; Parenting; Solutions; and The Care System.

Perhaps most notably, it is clear that many public perceptions are shaped through the lens of morality and individual responsibility, rather than a critique of the wider structural issues that put barriers in the way of care experienced young people and the workers that support them. This is evidenced in a number of the cultural models that the report draws upon.

The Selfless Parent[4]model was identified as being invoked frequently by interview participants when discussing parenting and the care system, often citing ‘neglectful parenting’ as a key factor in children entering care[5]. There was a clear underlying assumption amongst interviewees that to be a ‘good parent’ is to be selfless, and that many parents do not ‘choose’ to place their child’s priorities above their own. This model is symptomatic of many in-built assumptions insofar as it fails entirely to recognise the effects of poverty and trauma, and further entrenches the stigma faced both by children that enter into the care system, and on parents themselves. As a sector, debunking this narrative with a clear structural critique that highlights the impact of poverty, and communicating a trauma-informed approach that recognises the myriad ways in which adversity continues to effect people long into adult life, is essential.

We cannot allow ‘blame’ to be apportioned to individuals: be that a parent, a young person, or individual frontline workers. Yet this research shows that assumptions of individual responsibility are strongly threaded throughout public opinion, as further highlighted in the Troublesome Teen[6] and Bad Apples[7] cultural models, which place the responsibility of entering care onto the behaviour of young people, and the failures of the system onto individual workers who are either deliberately abusive or lacking in skills and training.

The paper notes that people will oscillate between a variation of ways in which they think about childhood, parenting and the care system, drawing on different assumptions at different times – interacting to create ‘toxic combinations’[8] of models that shape perception. Some ways of thinking may be Dominant (more consistently and powerfully shaping how people think and reason), while others may be Recessive (less top-of-mind and more easily pushed out of thinking)[9]. Regrettably, while some cultural models such as Financial Constraints[10] are useful tools for communicating some of the structural issues facing the system – in this instance, the lack of resourcing to deliver services – they are found to be Recessive, with the Selfless Parent and similarly individualised models found to be more Dominant in public thinking[11]

In the sector, our challenge in changing the narrative lies primarily within framing our perspectives in a way debunks rather than further entrenches public misperceptions. Not only do we have to shift public perception of responsibility to focus on structural causes over individual blame, we have to further communicate the ability for the sector to develop and overcome current challenges, to demonstrate the potential of all care experienced young people to lead happy successful lives and to be supported by a system that provides not just material but emotional support and guidance.

For when we talk exclusively – and in isolation – about the failures of the system, we perpetuate the notion that it is broken beyond repair, and that the children that enter it will by extension be irreparably damaged. While stark and sensational statistics of negative life outcomes for those with care experience raises public consciousness of the issues at hand, they can often do little to demonstrate the solutions – or even the possibility of solutions.

In turn, the sector – perhaps unknowingly – frequently invokes the Forever Damaged[12], Fatalism[13], and Standardized and Cold[14] cultural models which further reinforce deterministic assumptions that both the young people and the system into which they enter are unable to overcome existing barriers, as those barriers are deemed to be permanently anchored. 

So let’s change the narrative. Let’s articulate a positive vision of society, one where all young people can thrive, and outline clearly the path we must take to get there. That is not to say that we must not communicate the barriers in place – far from it – but rather to be insistent on the ability for those barriers to be dismantled entirely. We must debunk the assumptions of individual blame, and shift perspectives to focus on societal change. Our narrative aim should ultimately be to present such seemingly impossible change as not only achievable, but inevitable. 

If you have any thoughts about the Frameworks report, or about policy areas you would like to see Staf covering, please get in touch with Lewis Macleod, Policy and Events Officer, at [email protected]


[1] Pineau, M; Kendall-Taylor, N; L’Hote, E; Busso, D (2018) ‘Seeing and Shifting the Roots of Opinion’ p.42

[2] Ibid. pg.11

[3] Ibid. pg.32

[4] Ibid. pg.24

[5] Ibid. pg.25

[6] Ibid. pg.21

[7] Ibid. pg.29

[8] Ibid. pg.37

[9] Ibid. pg.11


[11] Ibid. pg.27

[12] Ibid. pg.15

[13] Ibid. pg.36

[14] Ibid. pg.28