Rights of the Child
What are rights?
Rights are what human beings need to be human. We all have them and by fighting for a full range of rights for all, we encourage a more humane, equitable, and just world.
One powerful story about the denial of rights is that of Mary Shelley's novel 'Frankenstein'. She was the daughter of William Godwin, a political philosopher who wrote about the freedom and dignity of the individual, and Mary Wolstonecraft, who was one of the first feminists.
'Frankenstein' describes what happens when someone has no rights - no right to a family, an education, food, shelter, friends, information or even a name. You can see a documentary about children learning about rights including the use of 'Frankenstein'.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is a list of human rights. Children can be seen as one of the last groups of human beings to be fighting for their rights, after black rights and women rights. All but two countries have signed-up to the convention, which means that they should put into law the points or articles of the convention.
How can you tell you have rights?
It is important to realise that a child's life can be protected and cared for without rights - societies can be paternalistic and children have happy lives whilst being their parent's property. How can you tell you are in a society that has the values of children's rights? The most important answer is when you find that someone is preventing you from doing something - how do you make sure you can do it? Who do you talk to? Who do you complain to? How do you know something has been done? Accountability is a key value of rights.
How can you find out what is happening in England?
The organisation in England that is fighting to make sure the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is put into law and acted on is the Children's Rights Alliance for England. If you are under 18 you can join for free. They will update you on what is happening in terms of news and changes in the law, as well as provide training, materials and networks that help you to get things done.
Schools and rights.
How can children's rights be expressed in schools and places where children live? There is a whole history of examples of schools in which children have a sense of their rights.
These go back as far as 1817 when Robert Owen, a cotton mill owner set-up one of the first elementary schools in the UK at New Lanark, Scotland. He was horrified by the treatment of human beings in the cottom mills, and industry, especially the use of orphans and children. His school was for the children of families at his mill. He wanted it to have the following values:
1. the playground was the most important space. Its main rule would be for everyone to help each other to be happy. The adults were employed who loved children and would not make them afraid. 2. children were to learn by asking questions and not by what the teacher wanted to teach. 3. learning to read and write were to be a part of the children wanting to learn and seeing them as necessary tools, but not enforced on the children.
Three other examples are: Janus Korczak, a jewish polish doctor who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto founded on children's voice and democracy. The orphans ran their own children's courts. He founded the first national children's newspaper, ran by and for children. He broadcast radio programmes for children. He died with his children at Treblinka concentration camp. For learning materials about Korczak click here and scroll down.
St Georges in the East Secondary School in Tower Hamlets ran for ten years, 1945-55, by the headteacher Alexander Bloom, as one of the world's most famous democratic state schools, with a very powerful school council and children's committees, and a curriculum which the children could choose. Once a term the whole school would meet and interview four members of staff, and share what they had learnt. A.S.Neill, the founder of the world's most famous democratic school, recognised by the UN, but a private school, stated that St Georges was probably as far as any state school could go. The government inspectors in 1948 in a report on the school claimed it was how all schools should be, it was the school of the future.
Summerhill School was founded in 1921 by a state school teacher, A.S.Neill, named by the UN as one of the hundred most important educationalists in world history. It is a small, residential private school in Suffolk in which the children, with the 14 staff, vote and create laws and run the schools day to day life and justice system. In January 2008 Childrens BBC broadcast a drama series about the school and its fight for survival against the Government Inspectors. The school won its fight in the Royal Courts of Justice, when the children took over the court to vote on the final decision.
Work in Schools
To see an example of a school exploring rights and democracy, click here for Christchurch Primary School's week on governance.
A few more ideas for action could include; get your school council to create a constitution based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; join Children's Rights Alliance for England and promote their news and campaigns in your school; learn more and get more involved through research, conferences and training; get your school council and your whole school discussing and voting on issues of children's rights in England and across the world; find out how your local council are implementing the UN Convention and lobby them...
Your school can get involved in the UNICEF Rights Respecting School Award, click here.