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Where next for the Scottish ACE’s agenda?

This opinion piece is over 1 year old

Are political and commercial interests threatening the future of our once celebrated ACE’s agenda, asks Gary Walsh

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) model came to prominence in Scotland in 2018.

A combination of activities such as screenings of the film Resilience, press articles, a large conference in the SECC and associated social media campaigning captured the attention of many including policy makers, commentators and practitioners.

The intention was to highlight the prevalence of ACEs, the potential long-term detrimental impacts to health and wellbeing posed by childhood adversity, and the importance of positive and secure relationships in countering those risks. This was a successful intervention that, according to the promoters at least, had gained the status of a ‘movement’ that promised real and lasting change. Scotland was being championed as the first ‘ACE-Aware Nation’.

One of the indications of policy-level commitment to this agenda was the establishment of a Cross-Party Group (CPG) in the Scottish Parliament on the Prevention And Healing Of Adverse Childhood Experiences.

However, it was revealed recently that the CPG received a series of resignations including the group convenor, Scottish Conservative MSP Sue Webber, her predecessor SNP MSP Rona Mackay, SNP MSP Karen Adam and Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, developmental psychologist and one of the main protagonists of the ACEs promotional activities mentioned above. At the time of writing, the CPG appears to be in a state of flux without a convenor, deputy or secretary to take the work forward.

This begs two questions: what has happened and where now for the ACE’s agenda in Scotland?

The first question can perhaps be answered if we look again at some of the original critiques of the ACEs agenda. Academic publications raised two fundamental concerns. The first was lack of clarity on what constitutes an ACE, given the initial model itself only recognises 10 specific ACEs. Poverty and racism, for example, are not recognised, nor indeed is any form of social inequality. It is striking that the CPG resignations seem to centre on the topic of ‘what counts as an Adverse Childhood Experience?’.

The second major concern related to the question of  ‘who is promoting this and why?’, linked to how the ACEs ‘movement’ might be driven in a way that makes it vulnerable to commercial and political interests. I referred to this in my own critique as ‘policy entrepreneurism’ along with concerns that the ACEs CPG was intrinsically weak on this front from the outset.

Indeed, one of the originators of the ACEs model wrote a paper stating the ACEs model and its main methodological feature, the ACEs ‘score’, was never designed for any purpose other than population-level studies. It was clear from the beginning that the application of the ACEs model beyond the purposes for which it was designed is inherently flawed by the lack of clarity about ‘what counts’, and a vulnerability to co-option by a set of interests that should not be driving the agenda.

The question of ‘where now’, therefore, needs to address those two issues. The main strategy should be avoiding the ACEs ‘model’ altogether – and the pitfalls of policy entrepreneurism that comes with it.

Gary Walsh is a PhD researcher and tutor at the University of Glasgow.

This article was originally published in the winter edition of Insight magazine, the membership magazine of national charity Children in Scotland. Find out more about Insight at