Rights and well being of children

Human Rights Broadsheet

20 November 2007

The rights and well-being of children:the second successful CEWC seminar

Hilary Tompsett, David Hodgson and Helen Johnson of Kingston University talk about the rhetoric and reality of how, as expressed in governmental policy, we behave towards our children and how they are made to feel The second CEWC seminar, held on 20 November 2007, was chaired by Hilary Hunt.

Noting that this was the eighteenth birthday of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, she reported that the Children’s Rights Alliance of England (CRAE) had declared at their annual conference that government had made progress on only 10 of 78 recommendations made to them by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child concerning their implementation of the CRC in the UK. This was a damning assessment of UK government progress. Perhaps significantly, the British Government has chosen to implement its policies through the European Convention on Human Rights rather than through UK law and has taken a deliberate decision not to implement the CRC by translating it into domestic law. So if the first seminar focused on the corporate social responsibilities of business organisations (and the resulting impact on the rights and lives of the communities in which they operate), the purpose of the second CEWC seminar was to address national government policy – in its newest initiative, Every Child Matters – that could be about children’s rights – but had not been framed in those terms. The resulting impact on Britain’s children would be considered.

General issues about childhood

For Hilary Tompsett and David Hodgson, from the School of Social Work, KU, World Children’s Day is a focus of professional research interest. Through the use of photographs, Hilary and David have been prompted into review and reflection activity. The range of photographs displayed started with a baby, then a toddler and, finally, teenagers (as childhood continues to 18 years of age). Viewing these photographs provoked certain questions, such as:

  • What does being a child mean?
    Protection, innocence, hope; Others make decisions for them, not listened to; Playfulness, having fun, but powerless; No worries; Growth
  • Does it matter where in the world a child is a child?
    Situation is related to the context, and peers Survival, conflict situations, child soldiers; Responsibilities vary around the world; Children and work: contribution variesWith and without parents; Concept of family.

David Hodgson explored preconceptions, rights and policies. Psychology and biology have traditionally taken the view that the developing child is a blank canvas. But the important issue is the contribution that the child him or herself makes. Sociological accounts tend to raise questions about roles of adults, and the skills they need and acquire. However, new technologies challenge ideas of completeness and skills of adults – and importantly, today, children may sometimes be more capable than adults. Additionally, it is necessary not to be sentimental about children: they can be unruly. After all, as David reminded the seminar group, Socrates had complained that children can be tyrants.

Current governmental policies make assumptions about children. In the Children’s Act (1989), following the Butler Sloss Report in 1987) the child is seen as being:

  • A threat (need control)
  • A victim (need protection)
  • An investment (need education)
General issues about human rights

Hilary then considered human rights and asked more questions:

  • What are human rights? How do we define rights?
    Wish list, legal entitlement, right to redress, right to live and be free, Dignity, respect and freedom: keeping them in balance,Not everyone enjoys each right: it can be defined by its absence,Right to be treated equally, for example education,To have a voice, expressing oneself.
    Are rights different when considering children? What happens when we apply the idea of rights to children? What do we learn, from the Convention and Every Child Matters, about children as rights holders? What do children say? What are the implications for practice?
  • How was the Convention constructed?
  • Were children consulted?
  • Is it essentially a document defined by adults?
  • Is the CRC fixed in its time, 1989? Why have 192 countries adopted CRC, while 2 have not (USA and Somalia).
  • What about the inconsistencies? (For example, in relation to child soldiers)
The resulting interplay of factors

David then turned to the interplay of rights, children, family and the state in the UK.

  • Rights can relate to autonomy, self expression, non interference, as in the European Convention, objectivity and reason are assumed.
  • The alternative is a basis of relationships: freedom to flourish, connection, interdependence, subjectivity, emotion.
  • CRC combines civil, political, economic and social rights. The state, family and children have relationships, and are not just separate.
New government policy about the well-being and protection of children

He then addressed the relationship between Every Child Matters and CRC. The Outcome Framework forEvery Child Matters stipulates that every child be supported in these ways:

  • Being healthy
  • Staying safe
  • Enjoying and achieving
  • Making a positive contribution
  • Economic well-being

UNICEF have matched the two together, taking 7 key principles from the CRC. The best interests of the child should be prioritised. The mapping is complex. Being safe was a preoccupation of CRC:

  • Has the UK become complacent about its state in the world?
  • Why is it that ECM does not deal with rights per se?
The rhetoric and the reality

David addressed the issues of rhetoric and reform, and questions of universalism and equity. Echoing Hilary’s earlier question about the voice of children in the defining of their human rights, an important question in the design of national governmental policy about children is:

To what extent were these Outcomes derived from children?

The Outcomes Framework for ECM needs to be explored. The CRC is a document of international law, and each State Party is legally bound to implement it through domestic legislation, policies and practice. The international mechanism for accountability is by regular reports to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child which makes recommendations for improved implementation. ECM has roots in national law, with overwhelming paraphernalia of enforcement. It is also an agenda for targeted support and action regarding children. There are parallel agendas, with interventions and surveillance. After all, at its widest (and perhaps deepest), child protection can be seen as personal integrity. Nevertheless, in Britain, children can still be subjected to reasonable physical punishment. Information sharing raises issues of confidentiality, and when the common law can be set aside.

The need for children’s voices in this discussion

Hilary ended with comments from children about living in England today. They talked about:

  • privilege, free health care, free education.
  • friends were priority of under 11s.
  • older ones valued freedom; disliked unfair age restrictions, vulnerability and bullying. They wanted greater opportunities for leisure, more respect, and education for respect. They want safety, friends and fun, health and happiness.

The UNICEF 2007 Report “Child well-being in the richest countries” highlights loneliness and unhappiness among British children. How is childhood experienced today in the UK?

Seminar discussion

Comments were made:

  • The voice of the child should be heard more.
  • There has been media coverage of stress, and the value of self-esteem of children.
  • We have a performance driven environment.
  • All adults and children should know about CRC.
  • How would ECM have been different if there had been more education on CRC?
The role of others in the education and protection of children

The first part of the seminar had focused on the role of formal, ‘authorised’ bodies in the education and protection of children. If children’s voices had been excluded from the design of the human rights stated in the CRC and in national governmental policy such as ECM:

  • what was the role of ‘others’, some of whom where in the alternative sector of education?

Helen Johnson, from the School of Education, KU, was concerned that while it may be that the theory about children’s rights is clearly expressed – or at least, the rhetoric about them (e.g. the UDHR and CRC) is confident and vocal – there are difficulties with the practical. There are also significant issues – not withstanding the appointment of a Children’s Commissioner in England – about the implementation of ECM as a policy and organisational strategy.

The context

As mentioned by Hilary and David, the UNICEF report on childhood has resonated, and cannot be disregarded. English children came bottom for well-being, in a dog eat dog society.

In a society, in many ways similar to the UK, the Dutch are happiest. Here in the UK:

  • Suicide rates are high.
  • Children are unhappy and stressed.
  • Much use of drugs and drink
  • Violence is prevalent.

In many ways, the UK approach to the protection of well-being has been legalistic, based on the exertion of rights, with an emphasis on agency. But on a day-to-day basis:

  • How do children exert their rights?
  • How do CRC and ECM really impact?
The culture within schools

There are important questions, not about the abstractions of rights, but about happiness and how children actually feel when they are in school:

  • the American writer, Nel Noddings, has asked why have so many creative people hated school?
  • Is it repressive for the creative child?
  • Is it repressive for many children?

After all, happiness is more than subjective well-being – it is about holistic growth, which is encouraged through the well-being of the children. Such well-being comes, in part at least, through committed teachers, whose own behaviour (and happiness) impacts on children. The children are watching. So rights in themselves are not enough. For example, UNICEF asked about children whether the children in their class were kind and helpful. In the UK and USA, with competition and materialism, there have been distortions, for example:

  • Boundaries between child and adult have disappeared, with sexualisation of popular culture seemingly all-pervasive.
  • What’s the effect of children spending less time with their parents?
  • Do the extended schools offered in the name of child-centredness actually prove the opposite?
  • As children spend more time with their peers how does this impact on their value systems?
  • As children spend more time away from their parents, what is the basis of adult authority?
  • State schools in the UK have become subject to:
  • an intense performativity, with OFSTED audits.
  • teaching has been technicised, with TDA checklists
  • ironically, with the emphasis on performance, some children are ‘failing’ earlier
  • children are seen as human capital.

There is a crisis in state education: fiscal, structural, social and educational. In Bernstein’s terms, schools cannot compensate for society and family. There is real complexity and difficulty for teachers.

Is there no other way?
Recognising the voice and role of others

An alternative view is that learning is about connections, and not being dispirited. There is a case for progressive holistic education, with education as the practice of freedom. American writers such as the Quaker, Parker Palmer, have argued for the need to go inward to find the inner teacher, the reflective practitioner. Spirituality is important, based on connectedness, with happiness, personal growth and self-actualisation. What do we want our children to be? Are there too many demands?

Quaker Schools as an example of the alternative

Helen Johnson gave as an example of a different type of good practice the seven independent Quaker schools, based on tolerance and conflict resolution. They are based on declared, elevated or transcendental aims, as in other experiments in progressive education such as those of Dewey, Steiner and Montessori. (In many cases, these were schools founded by parents themselves and others with a concern for the moral purpose of education).

There is suspicion of what has come to be called ‘faith schools’. But with the Society of Friends, there are no closed minds or fundamentalism. For though Quakers lack theology, they have strong culture. They respect diversity and minorities. The rights of the child, and ECM, are consistent with Quaker schools. The peace testimony and a calm atmosphere are vital, as an essential characteristic of the Quaker culture and of the Quaker school. In practical day-to-day terms, bullying is seen as failure in Quaker schools. This leads to the essential question in any discussion about the protection and well-being of children:

Why is bullying accepted and tolerated as a fact of life in other schools (including those being run by the state that in declares its adherence to children’s human rights and Every Child Matters)?

Why is this relevant?

Quaker schools are caring for the whole child, combining education, care and resilience. But most of all, they exemplify that there are alternative ways to the care and education of children, that there can be societies built on alternative values – and that alternative voices need to heard. Such schools declare their values. This allows them to be examined for consistency between their rhetoric and the reality about children’s rights and well-being.


Many points were made:

  • There was discussion of Bel Hooks, and the difficulty of teaching. It is hard to encompass all children, so that they are comfortable.
  • Spirituality is important, when considering inalienable human rights. Rights can be seen as protecting the spirit.
  • Human rights frameworks are useful for audit, assessing how we are doing.
  • Is happiness or concentration more important?
  • Disabled children should be covered by ECM, with equal access to education, without discrimination. There is a new Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Young disabled miss out, especially in developing countries. Legislation on the Disability Discrimination Act has changed in recent years, but people are unaware of the breaches in the law.
  • It is difficult for individuals to have their rights respected.
  • Teachers still need to be trained in delivering equal rights.
  • Few employers were challenged over breaches in the 1947 legislation, with official quotas not enforced.
  • Children in care, and their problems with education, are important.
  • School culture has to combat other forces, such as advertising junk food.

Alternative values have to be presented. This is not easy. The home school movement suggests a level of dissatisfaction. In conclusionHilary Hunt saw CRC as a charter for both adults and children. (Article 29 of CRC concerns the aims of education. It is worth consulting). Referring back to the first seminar about corporate social responsibility of big business, she thought that the Quaker approach to education – the empowerment of the child through education and being encouraged to be socially active -was consistent with empowering communities to make change. She reminded the seminar group that there are dangers in excessive pessimism and how societal problems and issues are portrayed. People are trying to widen the agenda. There are positive scenarios. ***** Human Rights Broadsheet 1 is now available:United Nations Day24th October 2007Sustainable DevelopmentPaul Caulfield, BP AsiaIn conversation with Richard Ennals, Kingston Business SchoolChaired by Les Stratton, CEWC Human Rights Broadsheet 3 is now available:

Human Rights Day

10th December 2007

Human Rights Education for World CitizenshipHilary Hunt, CEWCJude Smith Rachele, Abundant Sun

Chaired by Prof Richard Ennals, Kingston Business School

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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